ALDS: A’s vs. Twins: Sweep

At least Nick Punto didn’t try to slide head-first into first base in this game.

Other than that, Twins fans didn’t have much to cheer about as the Athletics finished off the Twins in Oakland yesterday, proving that general manager Billy Beane must have some new, um, stuff that does work in the playoffs. That’s the meme that I expect to hear—too bad that it’s not true.

Billy Beane’s famous statement (“My #### don’t work in the postseason”) is often misinterpreted to mean that he can build a team for regular season success but cannot build a team for postseason glory. A more accurate interpretation is that nobody can build a team for postseason success, because individual events—baserunners not touching home plate or outfielders turning singles into inside-the-park-homers—play a greater role in determining the outcome of a five game series than they do a 162-game season.

Indeed, inasmuch as any team was suited for playoff glory, the Twins were the “it” team heading into the Division Series. An unbeatable ace, a closer with the knack for the strikeout, and a few big-time power threats in the lineup made them a sexy pick to move on to the ALCS. Few expected the A’s to roll over, of course, and many observers predicted that it would take five games to determine a winner, but I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb when I say that the 2006 Twins were generally considered to be a more talented team than the 2006 Athletics, albeit not by much. In any event, nobody expected the series to end in a sweep, especially not by the A’s, since both teams had similar strengths: good starting pitchers, defenses good at turning batted balls into outs, and deep, talented bullpens.

No, this series didn’t tell us that Beane finally found a successful formula for the playoffs. It simply told us that Beane was right the whole time: anything can happen in a short series.

So what happened in this short series?

The Minnesota Twins, a team I believe to be better than the Oakland Athletics, were outplayed by the Oakland Athletics, a team I believe to be inferior to the Twins. That’s not to say that it was luck or randomness. The A’s scored more runs than the Twins for three consecutive games simply because the A’s played better baseball for three games.

This was certainly true in Game 3 of the divisional series.

Oakland’s Dan Haren certainly was far from dominating, allowing nine hits and a walk while striking out only two. Haren generally throws strikes and will give up his fair share of home runs, and Game 3 was pretty typical for him. Torii Hunter unleashed all of his frustration from his Game 2 misplay when he crushed a long home run to left field for the first Minnesota run of the game. For the most part, though, Haren kept the ball low in the zone and induced 10 groundball outs and gave up four groundball singles. The other extra-base hits he allowed were doubles to Justin Morneau (on an 0-2 splitter) and Hunter (on a first-pitch fastball). Fortunately for Haren, Hunter’s double was the only extra-base hit that came with a runner on base. He was efficient, throwing two-thirds of his pitches for strikes and averaging fewer than 3.5 pitches per batter.

Brad Radke didn’t impress in what was likely his final career start. Pitching with a torn labrum (!) and broken shoulder (!!), Radke tried to play the hero by staving off elimination for a game. His Curt Schilling/Willis Reed moment never came, as he only worked four innings and left with his team in a 4-0 deficit from which it would never recover. His trouble began in the second inning, when he left a pitch over the middle of the plate that a crippled Eric Chavez tattooed deep to left field for a solo shot. The A’s scored another run when Marco Scutaro drove in Jay Payton with an opposite field double and Milton Bradley completed the damage when he crushed a low pitch to straightaway centerfield to give the A’s a 4-0 lead. In all, Radke gave up only five hits, but three were for extra bases, and all three of those scored a run. Far be it for me to judge the man who pitched with the duct-tape-and-krazy-glue shoulder joint, but Radke couldn’t keep the A’s from hitting the ball hard, and they generally did it with men on. Did Gardenhire make the wrong call in allowing Radke to pitch yesterday? I think the answer is yes, but when the alternative is Carlos Silva, there may not be a right answer.

Defense was supposedly a strong point for both teams entering the series, but the Twins continued their unimpressive defense in the series finale. Jason Bartlett almost booted a ball when he let it bounce off of his chest, but he recovered nicely to throw out Jason Kendall. He wasn’t so lucky on the next better, as he let a Mark Kotsay grounder slip under his glove. Milton Bradley‘s home run followed immediately, putting the Twins in a big hole. Morneau bobbled a Payton groundball in a curious seventh inning—more on that later—which allowed the inning to continue and the A’s to put the game out of reach with four insurance runs. The A’s held up their part of the bargain; Chavez started a neat 5-4-3 double play that snuffed a Twins rally in the first inning and Bradley gunned down Hunter on a close play at the plate to preserve a two-run lead.

Oakland Manager Ken Macha went to bullpen to protect that lead, summoning Justin Duchscherer to throw his curveball and cutter. While Huston Street gets all the press, Duke has been a phenomenal relief pitcher this year and is the A’s best bullpen weapon. In a regular season game, Macha would have been unlikely to lean on Duke for two innings, but he showed that he can adjust to the playoffs by deploying Duke for multiple high-leverage innings in both Games 2 and 3. Street finished the game, although, like his last few appearances, he didn’t look sharp, allowing a few hits to the bottom of the Twins lineup before finally putting the game to bed.

The game was over long before Street entered, however, as the A’s plated four runs in the seventh to open up a six-run lead. The Oakland half of the seventh didn’t have to result in four runs, as Kotsay and Bradley made two quick outs to open the frame. Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire allowed the lefthander Dennys Reyes to face the Frank Thomas. Reyes didn’t give Thomas anything close to the plate, walking him on four pitches, presumably so that lefty-killer Reyes could face the left-handed swinging Chavez. Chavez laid off a few tough breaking balls, fouled off two pitches, and settled on an eight-pitch walk. Pitching around Hurt to get to Chavez made sense, and Chavez deserves some credit for drawing a walk. But in a game where the Twins were facing elimination, Gardenhire opted to go with Jesse Crain instead of Joe Nathan to finish the seventh. Jesse Crain has one thing going for him over Joe Nathan, and that’s winning the Billy Koch Memorial Award for Bad Facial Hair. Nathan hadn’t pitched the previous day, and likely could have gone multiple innings to keep the game close. After Morneau’s error loaded the bases, Nick Swisher worked an RBI walk. Even then, Gardenhire stuck with Crain, and Scutaro rewarded him with a bases-clearing opposite field double that sent the hometown nine—and their fans—into a tizzy.

Oakland now awaits the winner of the Tigers-Yankees ALDS. Ignore what you hear about Billy Beane’s stuff finally working in the postseason. Anything can still happen in a short series.

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