OAKLAND, Calif. — It was one of those beautiful California afternoons where you want to lean back, close your eyes and soak in the sun. And so you can’t blame Terry Steinbach for momentarily falling asleep at third base. By the time he woke up, however, teammate Willie Randolph was halfway to second on a double-steal attempt, and Steinbach was as late as an Air Iraq flight.

Oops. He ran anyway, and, of course, catchers like Steinbach don’t run too fast to begin with. Twenty feet from home plate, he was a dead man. Boston’s Tony Pena had the ball in his mitt and was just waiting, waiting. Were this any other team, we’d be reading about how Steinbach blew a critical play, and maybe cost the win, and maybe cost the series.

But these are the Oakland A’s, a team that shouldn’t bother to start their games with the national anthem; just blow the bugle. CHARGE! And here came Steinbach, who used to play hockey in high school, and he slams through Pena as if Pena were some skinny left winger and Steinbach were Bob Probert. Boom! The ball squirts out of Pena’s glove — actually, I think it ran away from fear — and Steinbach scores.

This is all you need to know about this American League Championship Series. It’s a bull going through a fence. A stampede. Here is the only mystery: How long is it going to take?

From the looks of things, I’d say another few hours. The Red Sox should be lifeless by then, and all the literary geeks can go whimpering into the night about how poor Boston is a cursed baseball town and will never win the World Series again and boo hoo, pass the wine and cheese.

Meanwhile, those Americans not so fascinated with John Updike and David Souter will realize something else: Nobody’s beating Oakland. Certainly not a team from the AL East.

Besides, if you watched Game 3 Wednesday, which the A’s won again with no home runs (they haven’t hit any this series) and with their weakest starting pitcher on the mound, you’ll realize something else:

Tony La Russa, the manager, is either 1) brilliant, 2) cheating or 3) the luckiest man on earth. Beating the blahs

I know this: As soon as I can, I’m going to interview La Russa in private. And I’m going to ask him one question: What stocks do you like?

I mean, this man gets hunches the way Lennon and McCartney used to get song ideas. Let’s take Mike Moore, who pitched the first six innings for Oakland Tuesday. There were good reasons not to start Moore. There were good reasons to lock Moore in a closet. He had a losing record this year (which is hard to do in Oakland). He hadn’t beaten the Red Sox in four seasons. His fastball was last seen somewhere in 1989. And in the regular- season finale last week, he was gone by the fourth inning.

So what does La Russa do? He goes with Moore — over 17- game winner Scott Sanderson — because he has this hunch. “Mike is good in the big games,” he says. He dismisses Moore’s stink last week as a case of “the blahs.” The blahs? Did Casey Stengel make pitching decisions based on the blahs?

Forget it. On Tuesday, Moore throws like Sandy Koufax. Six innings, five strikeouts, gives up one run. He gets the win. “Mike was in a good frame of mind,” La Russa says afterwards.

Right. And Disneyland is in a good location.

Too many ways to win

After the game, the Red Sox’s third straight loss, someone asked Joe Morgan, the Boston manager, what he tells his team at this stage.

“I tell them go out and win four straight,” he said.

Amazingly, he had a straight face when he said this. I saw one Boston writer bolt for the door, holding his stomach and covering his mouth. Let me point out a few things that might cause this reaction:

1) On Tuesday, Rickey Henderson was a non-factor, he got caught stealing on a stupid play.

2) Jose Canseco, with a bad back, didn’t hit the ball out of the infield.

3) Carney Lansford, Mr. October, was 0-for-3.

4) Walt Weiss, the starting shortstop, was out for the season with a knee injury.

5) The A’s still won.

Face it, Joe. You don’t fight that kind of destiny. You don’t fight this kind of talent. Mike Boddicker threw a great game for the Red Sox Tuesday, a hell of a game, really. He looks up, he’s losing, 4-1.

This is the pattern in this suddenly non-series: The Sox get one run against Oakland the way a 13-year-old gets one game from Steffi Graf. Meanwhile, this is the depth of Oakland: They have Willie McGee, the NL batting champion, on their roster.

Tuesday, Willie sat on the bench.

“We play every game like it’s the last game of the World Series,” said Steinbach to the crowd of reporters around his locker. The point is, they don’t have to. Even with the weak pitcher, even with the injured shortstop, even with the baserunning mistake that should have been a sure out, it doesn’t matter. Their pitching is too strong, their bench is too deep. Worse comes to worst, the A’s will just run you over. Boom.

“Hey,” said La Russa, “these are difficult games. All of them have been. The Red Sox could have won all three.”

Oh, yeah?

How?

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