Friday's opener also showed Oakland's Gnash Brothers at their best. Second baseman Tony Phillips made a dazzling backhand stop at the second base bag of a grounder by Jack Howell and turned it into a double play that got Moore out of a first-and-third, one-out jam in the second. In the fourth inning, rightfielder Stan Javier cut down Tony Armas trying to go to third on a Chili Davis single. Then, in the fifth, Javier doubled and scored on Weiss's single to break a scoreless tie against starter Mike Witt. In the sixth, Phillips crushed a two-run homer that made it 3-0.
The round-tripper was Phillips's second most important of the season. On July 31, his two-run clout off Chicago's Bobby Thigpen gave the A's a 3-2 win on the same night that the Angels blew a 5-0 lead and lost 6-5 in Seattle. "That," says La Russa, "was a very big night."
Oakland's renewed emphasis on pitching was reflected in La Russa's decision on Saturday to start the lefthand-hitting Ron Hassey behind the plate. The A's would be facing a lefty, Jim Abbott, but La Russa inserted Hassey at catcher because, said the manager, " Welch does best with Hassey, and the pitcher comes first." Oakland's starters have also been supported by the success of the bullpen, which, despite Eckersley's injury and the June trade that sent relievers Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret to the Yankees for Rickey Henderson, is on a pace to save 62 games; the bullpen set the record of 64 last year.
Plunk and Cadaret have been more than adequately replaced by Todd Burns and Matt Young, but it is Henderson who has made the trade look good. Since arriving in Oakland, he has either hit safely or walked 89 times in 45 games and has scored 45 runs. "We're a very different team with him," says La Russa. "If we can get Canseco, McGwire and the big boys bashing, we'll be awesome."
Saturday's game hardly resembled a clash between two front-running teams. Despite collecting six hits, six walks and two stolen bases and benefiting from an Angel error, a passed ball and a wild pitch in four innings, Oakland had only a 4-2 lead. "We showed how many problems we have scoring runs today," said McGwire. In fact, the four Oakland runs came on a bloop double, a bad-hop single, four consecutive walks and a sacrifice fly. Welch, meanwhile, was having troubles of his own, working himself out of a number of jams. In the third, with two men on base and one out, Welch took advantage of centerfielder Devon White's penchant for swinging at everything, by striking him out on a pitch well out of the strike zone. Welch then walked Wally Joyner intentionally and struck out Armas.
In the eighth, Rickey Henderson kick-started the A's. After Javier walked, Henderson executed a hit-and-run single to center. The next batter, Carney Lansford, grounded to Kent Anderson at short, but Henderson had been running with the pitch and the Angels were forced to settle for the out at first, as Javier scored. Henderson stole third, which forced Rader to bring the infield in and allowed Dave Henderson's grounder up the middle to trickle through for a hit. McGwire then homered, and the A's won 8-3.
"I didn't want to leave New York, but when George [Steinbrenner] started all that stuff in the papers, I said I'd only come home," says Henderson of his agreeing to be traded back to Oakland, where he had played from 1979 through '84. "No one gets blamed here every time we lose, like we did in New York. Everything is very positive here."
Especially La Russa's appreciation of Henderson's skills and enthusiasm. "Rickey plays very hard," says La Russa. "He got an unfair rap for not playing hurt. It's tough to be a manager, have Rickey Henderson and not put his name in the lineup, but sometimes it has to be done."
In the eighth inning on Saturday, La Russa had Duncan call the press box to get the names of Cleveland's starting pitchers for Oakland's series this week against the Indians. He wrote them down, then went to Henderson. "Who don't you hit well?" he asked his left-fielder. Henderson pointed to the name John Farrell. "Monday's an off day, and you'll sit against Farrell Thursday," La Russa told a grateful Henderson.
Like the A's, the Angels have also had to cope with injuries and rely on their frontline pitching. Designated hitter Brian Downing is out of the lineup with sore ribs. Outfielder Claudell Washington, with a sore left shoulder, and catcher Lance Parrish, with bruised ribs, played against the A's but played in pain. And on the eve of the big series, in a game against Seattle, shortstop Dick Schofield was hit by a Scott Bankhead pitch, broke his left hand and is sidelined for at least three weeks.