A#039;s victory puts Red Sox on verge of elimination

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 3, 2003

OAKLAND, Calif. - In less than 21 hours, the Oakland Athletics got one dramatic victory, one easy win and a commanding lead in their division series.

Such haste was only appropriate. With a talented young roster that soon will become too expensive to stay together, the A's are a team in a hurry - and so far, not even the Boston Red Sox's powerful lineup has been able to slow them down.

Barry Zito struck out nine over seven dominant innings, and Oakland pushed the Red Sox to the brink of elimination with a 5-1 victory in Game 2 Thursday.

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After spending a restless evening in bed while his teammates eked out a 12-inning victory in the series opener, Zito allowed five hits and two walks for the A's, who have lost in the first round in each of the past three postseasons.

Oakland finally can advance to its first league championship series since 1992 with one more victory.

''I think we definitely have something to prove,'' Zito said. ''We realize our guys are not going to be coming back every year. We lost Jason (Giambi), and the whole (Miguel) Tejada thing, we don't know what's going to happen with that.

''We don't have a lot more years to say, 'Oh, we'll get them next year.' We have to really bear down and get this series as soon as we can.''

So far, the AL's toughest pitching staff is beating baseball's most potent lineup. Boston, which broke the major league record for slugging percentage this season, is hitting .228 with just five runs after two games.

Game 3 is Saturday at Fenway Park. Derek Lowe, the losing pitcher in the opener, will start against Ted Lilly.

''Zito pitched a great game,'' said Nomar Garciaparra, who went 1-for-3. ''He put us against the wall, but we've been there before.''

Garciaparra is among the Boston veterans who led a comeback from an 0-2 deficit in the 1999 division series against Cleveland. Oakland also has been in this situation before: The A's won the first two games of their 2001 division series against the New York Yankees, only to lose the final three.

The teams took the field for batting practice Thursday slightly more than 10 hours after Eric Chavez scored the winning run in Game 1 on Ramon Hernandez's daring bases-loaded bunt. Zito, sent home early to rest up, caught the final moments on the radio.

''I think I pictured it pretty well,'' Zito said. ''But I still came in the clubhouse and watched the tape of the last couple of guys, just to make it real and get me fired up for the game today.''

The Cy Young winner's looping curve was in top form, and the Red Sox flailed at his best stuff. The A's didn't score again after an impressive second-inning rally, but Zito and relievers Chad Bradford and Keith Foulke easily made it stand up.

''Everybody was here early, even though it was a really tough night,'' said Hernandez, who had an RBI single in Game 2. ''It's the time of year when you don't have to worry about getting tired. We're a young team, and we love it.''

After the complicated dramatics of the opener, Game 2 was fairly straightforward: The A's relied on the dominant starting pitching and big innings that have carried them to four straight postseasons.

Eric Byrnes' first playoff hit was a two-run double during Oakland's rally against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Todd Walker, who hit two homers for Boston in the opener, made a comical throwing error that also allowed two runs to score.

''We're down 2-0, but we're going home,'' said Wakefield, another veteran of the '99 comeback. ''We just need to execute better, and we can get it done. … It's a huge difference being at home. There's that comfort zone with our fans, our rules, our game.''

Boston got its run on back-to-back doubles by Doug Mirabelli and Johnny Damon in the second, but Zito retired seven straight while striking out the side in the fourth.

Zito struck out two more in the fifth, falling just short of the division series record of six straight Ks tied by Atlanta's Mike Hampton on Wednesday night. The strikeouts raised Zito's pitch count: He threw 93 pitches in the first five innings, relying mostly on tenacity to finish the final two with 113 pitches.

''I didn't have the feel right off the bat, but you have to keep throwing it,'' Zito said. ''There was never a plan to throw curveballs to everybody, but when it's working pretty good, it's hard to get away from it.''

Except for the disastrous second, Wakefield was nearly as effective. He allowed four hits and three walks in six innings, striking out seven.

But the A's batted around in the second, scoring five runs on just two hits.

Byrnes cleared the bases with a drive over Manny Ramirez's head in left. With two runners on and two out, Chavez hit a slow roller to Walker's left - but the second baseman muffed it, fell to the outfield grass and made a throw that sailed far past Kevin Millar, scoring both runners.