Preparing for the unknown

Welcome to Oakland and McAfee Coliseum. It?s a typical Bay area day — mid-50s, the sky socked in with low clouds and wind. The flags in right have been blowing straight out, while the ones in left have been blowing right to left or not at all. A?s beat writer Mychael Urban tells me the Coliseum doesn?t play as big as most people think during the day, but with the weather less than ideal, it could play large as it does at night. Split

The playing surface, which the A?s share with the NFL?s Raiders, looks very nice in the infield, but not so nice in the outfield. The right- and left-field corners are fairly chewed up, as is a stretch from left to right across mid to deep center field. If it stays dry, it likely won?t be an issue, but if it rains, it could get messy. Thankfully, the forecast calls for clearing skies right around game time, with temps rising into the low 60s.

The setup for today?s game is simple: The A?s, who have lost nine consecutive clinching games, are looking to close out the series. Asked how he?s handling this differently than in the past to avoid a similar fate, A?s manager Ken Macha replied prior to today?s game: ?I am trying to avoid answering questions about Game 4. You’ve got to concentrate on the task at hand, so that’s what that has taught me.? 

The Twins, on the other hand, are turning to veteran Brad Radke, possibly making the final start of his memorable career with the Twins, to get them to Game 4. If the Twins lose today, no one would be surprised if Radke announced his retirement after the game. Should Radke get the Twins to Game 4, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire announced prior to today?s game that Johan Santana would not make a start on short rest. Santana was experiencing some soreness, and Gardy said starting him ?simply was not the right thing to do.? So it?ll be on Carlos Silva, who has gone 2-1 with a 4.74 ERA in three starts against the A?s this season, to force a Game 5, if it comes to that.

Urban, for his part, has come prepared (as all experienced media members know to do) in clinch situations. A second shirt is a must, because no one is spared a champagne shower in a clinching clubhouse. The beat reporters spend a lot of time with the players over the course of a season, and sometimes several seasons, so they often become targets in there — most of the time in good fun, occasionally not. It?s all part of the job.

If the A?s clinch today, we are ready. Having suffered through nine consecutive, agonizing letdowns, is A?s Nation ready?

Jim Banks / MLB.com

Hunter a standup guy

During my first year covering the White Sox for MLB.com, I watched Torii Hunter literally fling his body over the Metrodome fence on the dead run in left-center, taking away a game-tying home run from Carlos Lee. It seems like every play Hunter makes has an impact on the game?s ultimate outcome, and I can personally attest to the fact that many members of the White Sox organization would chip in for a beautiful stretch limousine for Hunter to leave town if he decided to exit the American League Central.

Hunter?s defense had a profound effect on the outcome of Wednesday?s game, but in this instance, it was on the negative side. The five-time Gold Glover dove for a Mark Kotsay line drive with two outs and the game tied in the seventh, turning what probably should have been a single or a double into a game-winning, inside-the-park home run.
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I always had a great deal of respect for Hunter, both as a player, a team leader and the little interaction I had with him as a person. I remember when he torpedoed White Sox catcher Jamie Burke at home plate two years ago, and I also remember listening to a number of people praising his aggressive play, including White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, with Hunter gaining the benefit of the doubt, to some extent, because he was such a good person.

But I only wish his fans or just people who respect his ability could have heard Hunter respectfully answer all questions following his miscue in center. Even after he said that it was hard for him to explain the play unless you actually played center, he still continued answering questions from reporters and television crews alike.

I?m sure it?s not going to be the most pleasant flight the Twins have ever taken as they board their charter for Oakland, but history has proven this series is not quite over as of yet. Hunter has made mistakes before and he will make mistakes again, but physical errors never will outweigh a person?s class and dignity.

We all have made big mistakes in our life. They usually don?t take place in front of 55,000 people or on national television.

Scott Merkin

Getting more with something to prove

I was present back on February 26 in the media workroom of Tucson Electric Park when White Sox general manager Ken Williams delivered his ?It?s not easy to deal with an idiot? diatribe aimed directly at Frank Thomas, following Thomas? pointed comments regarding the way his departure was handled by the organization after 16 years in Chicago in another newspaper article.

In fact, it was Williams, the four beat writers covering the White Sox at the time and a camera crew from WGN-TV. Kennywilliamsedit

Williams began the interview at perturbed, quickly moved on to angry and, by the time the session was complete seven minutes later, the astute general manager and World Series champion architect was downright irate. Some people have e-mailed me over the course of the season, asking if I thought Williams was too harsh on Thomas at the time.

I’ve always pointed out how Williams is very passionate and intense where the White Sox are concerned, and he felt as if Thomas? comments made it time for him to travel a route other than the high road. Williams did what he thought was appropriate and necessary, and you can?t fault an individual for defending his company.

Since then, neither side has talked about the other — probably a good thing. I give Williams credit for addressing and complimenting Thomas as a player after Thomas almost single-handedly knocked the White Sox out of postseason contention during a Sept. 16 series sweep of the White Sox in Oakland. And to Thomas? credit, he refuses to gloat when asked about playing in October and the White Sox being home watching the postseason on TV. He usually doesn?t talk about the White Sox, aside from addressing how good it feels to be contributing in the postseason in more than spirit.

For three years and part of a fourth, I covered Thomas on a regular basis. I never had one problem with him and thought he was a good guy to talk to about the game. He also knew his fair share about boxing and college football.

It?s good to see Thomas fight through adversity to return to top form, as he showed off once again Tuesday, just as it was good to see Jim Thome do the same in Chicago, after basically replacing Thomas in the lineup.

But if Thomas leads the A?s to a World Series title, the White Sox will have no regrets. As Ozzie Guillen pointed out, Thomas would not have produced the same numbers in Chicago. That feeling of something to prove might not have been present.
– Scott Merkin

A different gear entirely

If you want to know the true difference between playoff baseball and the regular season, check out this quote from Frank Thomas. His words cut to the heart of the matter without any clichés or platitudes. Thomasstretch200_1

?The games through the season, they just say, ?Hey, we need to win two out of three and move on,?? Thomas explained. ?It?s not like that anymore. You need to win eve ry ballgame. This is the time of the year you put up or shut up and go home.?

Put up or shut up, Frank? Okay, so there was one cliché in there. But there?s no question Oakland wants to come out today and beat the Twins, putting Minnesota in a seemingly insurmountable hole. Ask the 2005 White Sox about the importance of dispatching a team quickly and not being satisfied with one win when you can get two.

Ozzie Guillen?s crew was able to dispose of the Red Sox in three games during the American League Division Series and the Angels in five games in the ALCS, thus setting up their rotation for the ensuing series. Meanwhile, the Angels were battling the Yankees for five games to get into the ALCS, flying from Anaheim to New York to Chicago over the course of three days. And Albert Pujols? ninth-inning home run off of Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the NLCS deprived Houston of using Roy Oswalt in Game 1 of the World Series against the White Sox.

In fact, Oswalt didn’t work until Game 3. Of course, there nothing wrong with all-time greats Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, but Oswalt is and was Houston’s best pitcher, and teams always want to grab the series’ first game, if possible.

Forget about every game meaning something. Every pitch of every inning plays a significant role in advancement.
– Scott Merkin

What was that again?

An award for patience with the media goes to Minnesota?s Michael Cuddyer following his team?s 3-2 loss to Oakland on Tuesday.

I walked into the Minnesota clubhouse at 2:45 CT, and Cuddyer started talking to a group of reporters shortly thereafter. When I left the clubhouse at approximately 3:15, Cuddyer still was doing interviews. At last count, Cuddyer answered the question about almost throwing out Frank Thomas at first base on a seventh-inning single to right approximately 10 times, and I lost count of the questions regarding Barry Zito?s effectiveness.

And we are talking thoughtful, insightful responses. It?s easy to understand why both the Twins and Oakland are successful, simply by viewing the camaraderie in their respective clubhouses the past few days. Good guys on good teams.

– Scott Merkin

Loaizas resurgence has been key

The White Sox might be gone from the 2006 playoffs, but they haven?t been all together forgotten.

Oakland manager Ken Macha credited White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper with a helpful word of advice in regard to Esteban Loaiza when the A?s visited Chicago in late May. At the time, Loaiza was out of action, nursing a strained trapezius muscle.

?One of the things, as he was going through his rehab, we went to Chicago and talked to Don Cooper, the pitching coach in Chicago, and one of the things that he said, one thing that E-Lo likes to do is compete,? Macha said. ?That’s exactly what he did for us.

?In August, he was one of the guys that stepped up and propelled us through August. He had a great August and got us the lead that we needed getting into September.?

Macha talked about Loaiza throwing a 79 mph fastball during an April game against the Angels, not exactly falling in the optimum range, even for a pitcher who tops out in the low 90s. But just as Loaiza competed his way with the White Sox to a second place finish in the 2003 AL Cy Young balloting, the right-hander bounced back with a 4-0 record and 1.48 ERA in August and an 8-4 record with a 4.01 ERA during the season?s second half for Oakland.

Loaiza?s stage will move a little more into the limelight on Tuesday.

Scott Merkin / MLB.com

A little extra rest

The Twins chose not to hit on the field prior to Tuesday?s game, basically because they decided to sleep in.

Well, that reason wasn?t given specifically by Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, but during his pregame press conference Tuesday, Gardenhire explained how his hitters opted for working in the cage after the whirlwind few days of activity and the noon start. Gardenhire said his team would hit on the field prior to Wednesday?s noon start.

As for the early start time, a number of players on both teams sardonically joked about feeling like an opening act to the the Yankees? main show Tuesday night. But after playing at 11:10 p.m. CT this past Saturday to accommodate the Michigan-Minnesota football game that night at the Metrodome, noon is a bonus for the Twins. And unlike Saturday, Minnesota doesn?t have to worry about not being able to start an inning after a certain time.

?We gained an hour,? Gardenhire said. ?We don?t have any curfew, so that?s good.?

?Day games, night games. It doesn?t matter,? Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau added. ?It?s always the same time in the ‘Dome. You never see the sun in here anyway, so it doesn?t really matter.?

Personally, I?ve gained new respect for reporters who cover the Cubs, with all of those day games. It?s tough to get up at 7 a.m. and try to get a workout in before heading off to the ballpark. Of course, my brother who is a teacher reminds me that people who live in the real world follow that routine every day.
Scott Merkin

Hunter_1 The 2006 Twins no longer are just a baseball team having an exceptionally good season, while playing their home games at the Metrodome. They have become part of the family for many citizens of the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

During Saturday night’s Michigan-Minnesota football game, in a break from the thrashing administered by the Wolverines (note: writer is proud Michigan graduate and still holds out hopes for a National Title this season), the Metrodome’s public address announcer delivered the following baseball score to the crowd.

"In the first inning, it’s Detroit 0, Kansas City 7."

OK, so the score was in reverse, but he probably announced it that way for dramatic effect. Fans cheered as if the Twins had just pulled out one of their many improbable victories in the bottom of the ninth inning. For the moment, everyone was part of the Twins’ family and not worried about Michigan’s on-field dominance.

After Sunday’s events unfolded, allowing the Twins to celebrate the AL Central title with their support system at the Metrodome, they still were waiting outside the stadium as players were exiting. A group of 10 fans or so surrounded Torii Hunter’s car as he was leaving, but Hunter graciously stopped and signed autographs, even posing for a few pictures.

As Hunter was driving off, one of the fans standing on the corner stated rather matter-of-factly, "See you Tuesday, Torii." It was as if they were meeting up for dinner, instead of prepping for the Division Series opener.

Yes, Ron Gardenhire’s "Little Piranhas" seemed to have lifted the spirits of a city through their inspired play.

Scott Merkin / MLB.com

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