On the day his club's American League-record 20-game winning
streak was to end, Oakland Athletics lefthander Barry Zito
strolled into the visitors' clubhouse at the Metrodome wearing a
flowered silk shirt and a pair of baby-blue, pin-striped engineer
pants. These being the A's--among whom, as third baseman Eric
Chavez says, "You're not gonna make it if you have thin skin"--the
catcalls began immediately.
"Homey the Clown, don't play around!"
"Gotta get the catalog, the Zito Collection!"
Zito smiled sheepishly, but moments later, after he had changed
into his warmups, it was his turn to be incredulous. "Three
games?" he said quietly, glancing over a teammate's shoulder at
that morning's standings in a newspaper. "We win 20 in a row, and
we're still only three f-----' games up?"
Welcome to the wild, wild American League West, where the
weirdest thing seen last week wasn't Zito's getup, it was this:
While the A's were putting together the best stretch of baseball
in 67 years, the Anaheim Angels were the rugrats hanging on to
the leg of their low-riders. Despite going 22-1 since Aug. 13--the
lone loss was Friday's streak-snapping 6-0 defeat in
Minnesota--the A's through Sunday led the Angels (18-6 during the
same span) by only two games, while the Seattle Mariners (12-12)
lurked six games back. Beginning on Monday night, when the A's
and the Angels commenced a four-game series, the four AL West
teams play only one another for the remainder of the regular
season in a round-robin that will determine both the divisional
champion and the AL wild card. "It's a damn battle," says
Mariners second baseman Bret Boone, "and it's supposed to be."
The end of Oakland's winning streak left the Angels as the
hottest team in the majors. Through Sunday, Anaheim had won 10
games in a row and improved to 37-19 since the All-Star break,
second only to Oakland's 40-14. The two teams have much in
common: Oakland (3.66 team ERA) and Anaheim (3.68) have the AL's
top two pitching staffs, each anchored by a twentysomething
lefthander (the A's 24-year-old Zito, the Angels' 28-year-old
Jarrod Washburn), as well as breakout MVP candidates (Oakland
shortstop Miguel Tejada and Anaheim centerfielder Garret
During the A's streak the Angels often refused to answer
questions about their rivals. But with this week's showdown
looming, the topic became unavoidable. "I'm glad they're thinking
about us a little bit," Washburn, the Angels' first 17-game
winner in 11 years, said on Sunday. "They're in our minds, too.
You notice a team that wins 20 games in a row, especially when
it's a team you're chasing."
Unlike the Angels, who have had some epic collapses in recent
years, Oakland is accustomed to second-half success. Over the
last three seasons the A's have gone 107-39 (.733) after July 31,
and several key Athletics are only now finding their best form.
The team's offensive boom--since the start of the streak the A's
have averaged a league-high 6.5 runs per game--coincided with the
installation of the lefthanded-hitting Chavez as its cleanup man.
Like his team, Chavez, 24, heats up when the weather does; he's a
career .256 before the All-Star break, a .303 hitter after it.
This season he's become more disciplined at the plate, and the
result (a .337 average, six home runs and 29 RBIs since the
streak started) is the best second half of his career. Chavez has
concentrated on being more selective, which he learned from
former teammate Jason Giambi. "Jason would give the team four
good at bats every game," Chavez says. "That's what I'm trying to
That measured approach has also improved Chavez's ability to hit
lefthanders, against whom he's batted a career .228. That may
well be crucial down the stretch: In late-inning situations teams
may elect to pitch around Tejada in the three hole, then bring in
a spot lefty reliever. Chavez will likely face both the Angels'
Al Levine (against whom lefties hit .222) and the Mariners'
Arthur Rhodes (.168) in clutch at bats this month.
Even as Chavez matures at the plate, the San Diego native retains
his cockiness. He sometimes sports a T-shirt that reads DO YOU
KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE on the front and TO HAVE JUST SEEN ME? on
the back and freely criticizes management's May crackdown on
video games, cellphones and blaring rap in the clubhouse. "I
think it was b.s.," he says. "For the last two years that's what
people were giving us credit for: 'They have fun, they're
relaxed.' I thought it was kind of childish, to slap us on the
hands like we were kids, telling us, 'We don't want you guys on
the phone or the computer. We don't want you listening to music.'
I took offense at that. Now we're winning, and everybody's
looking the other way again."
Like Chavez, Billy Koch is peaking at the right time, giving
Oakland a closer who matches up with Anaheim's Troy Percival and
Seattle's Kaz Sasaki. Koch, 27, is a great fit for the
free-spirited A's: a husky 6'3" and 215 pounds with a sharply
curled blond goatee and a shaved dome. The literature in his
locker is crossword puzzles and hunting magazines, and before
games he tirelessly flips cards in games of Spades with his
bullpen mates. But Koch, acquired from the Blue Jays for third
baseman Eric Hinske and a minor leaguer, was a bad fit in one
respect: He has historically been at his worst late in the
season. In three years with Toronto he was 5-8 with a 4.60 ERA
after Aug. 1 and blew 8 out of his 43 save opportunities. "I was
all over the place with my arm angle, with my spot on the rubber,
and that's why I went south as the year went on," he says.
To fix those flaws, Koch spent the first week of spring training
tightening his mechanics with pitching coach Rick Peterson. He
improved the coordination of his upper and lower body during his
motion, slotted his arm at a three-quarters angle and shifted to
the extreme first base side of the rubber, which allows him to
run his fastball in on lefties while driving his hard, 90-plus
sinker in on the hands of righties. Since Aug. 1 Koch is 3-0 with
a 1.23 ERA and has converted 12 of 13 save chances. "I think he's
battle-tested now," A's manager Art Howe says.
Armed with a peaking slugger and a resilient closer, Howe and his
A's marched into Anaheim, paradoxically, with both the swagger of
a division leader and the paranoia of a club being doggedly
pursued. "Sure you scoreboard-watch," he said before Sunday's 6-0
whitewash of the Twins, in which Zito became the league's first
20-game winner. "It's September. The main thing is, nobody can
gain on us if we win."
So the A's sped toward October, one eye fixed firmly on the road
ahead, one trained warily on the rearview mirror.
HOW THE WEST WILL BE WON
The four AL West teams will play within the division for the
final three weeks of the season. Although the A's held a two-game
lead at week's end, the Mariners had the best intradivision
record, at 25-13. (Oakland and Anaheim were 19-19.) Here's the
breakdown on the various head-to-head matchups (all stats through
Sunday). --David Sabino
SERIES 2002 SERIES
(Games Remaining) LEADER, W-L
2002 KEY STAT
A's-Angels (8) A's, 7-5
Anaheim, 3-3 versus Barry Zito and Tim Hudson, hasn't faced Mark
Mulder, who will start on Thursday.
A's-Mariners (6) Mariners, 8-5
John Olerud has a .415 BA and a .519 OBP (17 hits, 10 walks, 52
PAs) versus Oakland.
Angels-Mariners (6) Mariners, 7-6
Despite hitting just six HRs against Seattle, the Angels have
scored 64 runs, more than any other team.
A's-Rangers (6) A's, 7-6
Miguel Tejada and David Justice have teamed for five HRs, 25
RBIs and 54 total bases versus Texas.
Angels-Rangers (6) Angels, 8-5
In 53 ABs, Garret Anderson has hit Rangers pitching at a .321
clip with four HRs and 12 RBIs.
Mariners-Rangers (8) Mariners, 10-2
Seattle reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa is 3-0 versus Texas, which
is hitting .094 against him.