Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2002 ALDS: No pressure

After losing MVP Jason Giambi to free agency, the Oakland Athletics surprised a lot of people in 2002 by winning even more games than they had in 2000 and 2001. This time, not trapped behind the juggernaut Mariners, they had the division title to themselves.

Even without Giambi, the A's were seen as heavy favorites against the upstart Minnesota Twins, appearing in the postseason for the first time since 1991. Oakland had the three best pitchers in the series - and in all honesty, three of the best five pitchers in the league - in Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson.

But given their recent postseason history, they couldn't have relaxed too much against the Twins. After all, it was the Twins who had ended Oakland's 20-game winning streak during the regular season, and the young Twins entered this postseason with no expectations, and thus no pressure.

The Twins' lack of experience showed in the first two innings of Game 1. A pair of errors led to a three-run first inning for Oakland. After the Twins got one run back, they committed another error in the second to give Oakland two more runs. Trailing 5-1, it would have been easy for Minnesota to give up, or at least become disheartened.

But give up they didn't, and a two-run home run by Corey Koskie put them right back in the game. Three innings later, a three-run rally knocked Hudson out of the game and gave the Twins a Game 1 victory.

Oakland won games 2 and 3 fairly easily, as expected. But then the unexpected happened. The Twins lit up Hudson for seven runs - five of them unearned - in the fourth inning of Game 4, giving them a comfortable victory and forcing a Game 5 back in Oakland.

The Game
Minnesota had done next to nothing against Mulder in Game 2, getting only a solo home run when they were already down 9-0. Mulder was definitely the guy Oakland wanted on the mound. Meanwhile, despite the hiccup in the first two innings, Brad Radke had actually earned the win in Game 1, and as Minnesota's unquestioned ace, he was the guy the Twins wanted on the mound.

Both Radke and Mulder pitched outstanding games; Mulder struck out nine in seven innings, while Radke gave up only six hits in six and two thirds innnings. Entering the ninth, Minnesota had a 2-1 lead, and Oakland brought in closer Billy Koch to try to keep the score right where it was and give Oakland a chance in the bottom of the inning.

Instead, Koch struggled right out of the gate, walking Dustan Mohr after an eight-pitch at bat, then giving up a first-pitch home run to A.J. Pierzynski. As Pirezynski flip his bat and yelled out an expletive as he watched his home run sail, it seemed like he had put the final nail in Oakland's coffin. However, it was David Ortiz's two-out double later in the inning, the one that made it 5-1, that was truly the final blow.

See, Oakland mounted a comeback against Twins closer Eddie Guardado in the bottom of the ninth. With one out and a runner on first, David Justice doubled to deep center, followed by a Mark Ellis home run to make it 5-4. Ortiz's double, which hadn't seemed so big at the time, now seemed huge. Guardado got Terrance Long to fly out to center, but then gave up a single to bring the winning run to the plate with two outs.

Here's the thing about Oakland Coliseum. With all the remodeling done to accomodate the Oakland Raiders, the stadium ended up with a weird shape for baseball. The weirdest part of the shape was the yards and yards of foul territory in the infield, by far the most of any major league park. So when Ray Durham lifted a foul ball on the seventh pitch of the deciding at bat, Twins second baseman Denny Hocking started giving chase. And he chased and chased and chase, well past the point where the ball would have fallen foul in any other ballpark. Then Hocking reached up his glove, caught the ball over his shoulder, and gave the Twins their first postseason series win since 1991.

The Twins celebrated like mad after beating Oakland. Perhaps they celebrated too aggressively, as Hocking was stepped on in the celebration and was out for the ALCS against Anaheim. Without their utility player, the Twins still won Game 1 in the Metrodome before the combination of Anaheim's unhittable relievers and a red-hot Adam Kennedy sent the Twins home in five games.

Though they lost in the ALCS, the youthful Twins were viewed as team that would contend for years to come. But although the Twins have made the postseason five times since the 2002 season, that ALDS against Oakland remains their last postsesaon series win.

Oakland, meanwhile, was left to ponder yet another disappointing season. It was the third straight year they would lose in five games in the ALDS. 2003 would make it four straight.

The Rundown

13. Minnesota 5, Oakland 4 (2002 ALDS)
14. Boston 4, Oakland 3 (2003 ALDS)
15. Cleveland 4, N.Y. Yankees 3 (1997 ALDS)
16. L.A. Angels 5, N.Y. Yankees 3 (2005 ALDS)
17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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