Game Three, American League Division Series
Minnesota Twins at Oakland Athletics
We have a little trouble at the gate, as Paul's celebratory "sweep" broom is judged to be too long. To shorten it might make it stadium-legal, but would result in an additionally-illegal jagged tip. The broom is in about as good condition as Brad Radke's shoulder, so it is abandoned.
The A's have come under fire for their cheap, low-ride operation: inadequate staffing, no postgame parking lot staff, closing concession stands for no reason. Oakland is an amazingly cheap organization. Their most controversial move has been covering the entire upper deck in tarps, to lower the stadium's seating capacity (and presumably cut down on staffing needs). We see another side of this cheapness on the way to our seats, when a sign informs us that the bathrooms will not open until 1:15, fifteen minutes after the first pitch.
Maybe the janitorial money saved has gone to fireworks. The A's shoot off fireworks before and after player introductions, and during the national anthem. The momentum slows a bit when they announce second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez, and the crowd asks each other, "Who?" There is a post-anthem flyover from what looks like a giant transport planes. They can't get fighter jets? It's Fleet Week!
Rickey Henderson throws out the first pitch. He is wearing a tan suit with sunglasses, and there is an enormous medallion around his neck. Rickey's pitch goes a little outside, but Rickey wants Oakland to know that Rickey is available to fill in if Oakland needs a backup middle infielder. Rickey has always wanted to end Rickey's career in Oakland.
Before the game, all fans were handed rally towels, a cheap knockoff of Minnesota's Homer Hankies. Paul received a rally towel at Pac Bell Park the previous week, which he says was "significantly nicer". Pieces of the towels are coming off every time a fan waves one.
Top of the first: Trouble in our Plaza Reserved section from a fan in a tattered cap. He's in the first row, and declares his intention to stand for the whole game. He also berates a pair of Twins fans sitting two sections away. I write down a prediction: "Fourth-inning ejection". Quote: "Look, I'm not a total asshole, but I really want to stand." If you're qualifying how much of an asshole you are, that's a good sign that you're a pretty big asshole.
Middle of the first: At 1:18, the newly-opened bathroom already smells like weed.
Bottom of the first: The cheer of, "Bro-ken! (Clap clap) Shoul-der! (Clap clap)" fails to distract Brad Radke, and he gets through the first inning in an efficient 14 pitches. By my count, he's got about 65 pitches left. The guy in the hat sits down, so maybe he really isn't a total asshole.
Top of the second: Canadian Justin Morneau leads off for the Twins. At the World Baseball Classic this spring, correspondent Mike B reports that one fan cheered for Justin the whole day, but called him "Monroe!" the whole time. On an 0-2 pitch, Monroe! gets a double, the third hit pitcher Danny Haren has given up in the first three batters. Inexplicably, Torii Hunter bunts Monroe over to third on the first pitch. Before he's even thrown out at first, I've written, "Dumb play". Right now, Hunter is hitting better than anyone else on the team, but apparently, he thinks he's Derek Jeter.
Rondell White follows with a fly ball to left, not deep enough to score Monroe!. Jason Tyner, who has hit one home run since Little League walks. The guy behind us starts heckling the home plate ump, even though we're deep in the left field stands. Jason Bartlett strikes out to end the inning.
Danny Haren pitch count: 30.
Me smacked in the face by a rally towel count: 2.
Middle of the second: The tarps do not completely cover the upper deck of the outfield. The area above home plate seems to be devoted to the media overflow, which is about 40 unhappy people. The tarps now read "WELCOME TO AKLAND".
Bottom of the second: The playoff slump of the much-maligned Eric Chavez ends in a big way, with a giant home run to right. I was maligning the hell out of him, but that was a pretty nice swing. Payton swings at the very next pitch and singles.
Nick Swisher follows with a long at-bat featuring five straight foul balls. Swisher seems to understand that, against the wounded Radke, this is a war of attrition. Even though he eventually strikes out, Swisher is reminiscent of the boxer that pounds his opponent's upper arms in every clinch, in hopes he can't raise his arms by the late rounds. With a broken shoulder, I doubt Brad Radke can box anyway.
Marco! (Clap clap) Scutaro! (Clap clap) Zembla favorite Marco Scutaro delivers once again in the clutch for Oakland. The man is amazing in late innings, in RBI situations, and in games that I attend. Through two innings, Radke has already thrown 40 pitches. The trainer might have to put a few staples in his armpit in the dugout.
Top of the third: Dirty-named Nick Punto grounds out, and manages to stay on his feet as he runs through the bag. Haren gets a 1-2-3 inning.
Bottom of the third: Jason Bartlett is having a tough defensive series for Minnesota. He fumbled a sure double play in Game 1, and has generally looked terrified at all times that a ball might be hit in his direction. Here he bobbles a grounder and barely throws out non-speedster Jason Kendall. On the next play, he's too nervous to do anything but wave weakly at Kotsay's grounder as it rolls by. Apparently Brad Radke's fastball did something to anger Milton Bradley, because he hits an enormous blast to dead center. Even though he knows it's gone immediately, he runs really hard around the bases. 4-0, Oakland.
Top of the fourth: There's a reliever warming up in the Minnesota bullpen, and that's really not something you want to see in the fourth inning of an elimination game. In the beer line, one fan presents his theory as to how the upper deck closure shuts out opposing fans. Because Minnesota didn't know if they were playing New York or Oakland until the last day of the season, they didn't have time to get tickets for road games. Indeed, I have only seen about thirty Twins fans this afternoon. It will be interesting to see the effects in the ALCS, as the Tigers-Yankees winner might not be determined until late Sunday night. Torii Hunter hits a no-doubt homer to get the Twins on the board, and I am doubly glad he decided to bunt in the second. 4-1.
Bottom of the fourth: Poor Brad Radke drops an easy popup to allow D'Angelo Jimenez to reach. It was the easiest defensive chance of the game so far, and he completely biffed it. Paul asks, "Doesn't the pitcher usually let a real infielder catch those?" Yes, yes he does. Maybe Radke has a broken glove hand as well? The gaffe isn't that surprising, considering Radke hasn't practiced in months due to his shoulder. On a day he's not pitching, Radke is the Walter Sobchak of the Twins: He doesn't throw on the side, he doesn't take infield practice, he doesn't turn on the oven, and he sure as shit doesn't roll!
Kendall follows with a single, and we're witnessing the very last of Radke's career here. No way he comes out for the fifth. Kotsay flies out to end the inning, and Radke wanders into the dugout. I am disappointed, as I wanted the error to hurt Radke in the game, not just hurt his ability to raise his arm over his head at age 45.
Top of the fifth: Punto singles with two outs. An overconfident Jason Kendall whizzes a pickoff throw into right field. Joe Mauer, having a rough series, grounds out to second.
Bottom of the fifth: Bradley shocks the entire stadium with a drag bunt that just misses the third base bag. First the pickoff throw, then the bunt - Nick Punto may need to change his pants. Radke is indeed out of the game, replaced by a lefty I've never heard of named Perkins. Thomas singles to right, just deep enough that there's no throw. Chavez slams a double off the left field wall, missing a home run by a few feet. Any other player in the league scores on that play, including many retired and/or deceased players. However, most fans are just happy the Big Hurt wasn't thrown out at third.
Juan Rincon comes in, and Ron Gardenhire is getting serious. On the first play, Jay Payton grounds to shortstop, and...Frank Thomas is running? He's out at home by about 90 feet. There's an awkward play at the plate, where Frank tries to slide, but it's sort of half-assed, and Mauer looks embarrassed for him as he makes the tag. In those situations, the catcher is like a squad of cops collaring a drunk. "Frank, you want to do this the easy way, or the hard way?" Rincon gets out of it, and the game is still too close for me.
Top of the sixth: With one out, Monroe! singles. Hunter resists the urge to sacrifice and instead hits a double. The tying run is at the plate, and we want The Duke! Duchscherer is only just warming up, so it's up to Haren for the time being. Rondell White singles, scoring Monroe! and THERE'S A PLAY AT THE PLATE! Milton Bradley, star of the game, throws out Hunter on a very close play at home. I was surprised he didn't score easily, but Bradley played it perfectly. Best of all, Rondell White didn't even advance to second on the throw. Jason Tyner does not homer, and that should be it for Danny Haren. Oakland 4, Minnesota 2.
Bottom of the sixth: One thing that makes Marco Scutaro so popular is his ethnic ambiguity. Is he Latino? Italian? All races can embrace his scrappy, underdog talents. The A's don't do anything, so the highlight comes when a guy in the second deck leaps for a foul ball that lands fifteen rows above him.
Top of the seventh: Officially, Justin Duchscherer is known as The Duke, and he's the A's pitcher I trust most. However, a minor contingent refers to him as The Douche, due to his uncanny ability to clean up in a tight situation. He's helped this inning by the team's uncannily accurate defensive positioning. Bradley barely moves to catch Luis Castillo's liner, and we're headed for the seventh inning stretch.
Seventh inning stretch: When the game is a sellout, the crowd is less forgiving of an elaborate calisthenics routine. The "Stretch" part is really just an expression.
Bottom of the seventh: There is a bar behind first base that looks like a nightclub. It's packed with people, there's a velvet rope, and what appear to be bouncers. There are women in this bar of a caliber rarely seen at A's games, and never at Raider games. Maybe they come to Raider games, but their faces are painted and they're wearing spiky costumes and they're Raider fans, so they're tainted forever. Once Frank Thomas receives an two-out intentional walk, I head back to my seat.
Dennys Reyes is in the game to pitch, and he is pretty fat. However, he looks a lot less fat than I remember - he's in Bob Wickman territory, rather than Rich Garces territory. Honestly, it's not like you lose a lot in being a morbidly obese relief pitcher. Your job has virtually no physical activity to begin with, and there's no guarantee you'll pitch on any given day. It's totally acceptable to eat a hot dog in the bullpen. Or five hot dogs. Today, I think Dennys Reyes ate two hot dogs, at most.
Reyes goes 3-2 on Chavez, and then poor Frank Thomas has to run down to second on two consecutive foul balls. The eighth pitch nearly drills Chavez, and Reyes might have simply gotten sick of that at-bat and decided to go have a snack in the clubhouse. The Twins bring in Jesse Crain to face Jay Payton, and I wonder why they don't use closer Joe Nathan. Sure, it's the seventh, but one run ends the game at this point. It looks like Crain has gotten out of the inning, but Monroe! botches the grounder and the bases are loaded. In Canada, that's 1.13 errors.
Nick Swisher comes up, the poster boy for Billy Beane's oft-discussed Moneyball approach. The A's are criticized for not doing little things to score runs in the playoffs; Swisher's main skill set is power and selectivity. Moneyball wins out, as Swisher coaxes a seven-pitch walk to score a crucial insurance run. Then, things go crazy.
Marco Scutaro comes to the plate. If Swisher's at-bat was validation, I saw this at-bat as a validation of all the Scutaro supporters out there who champion his clutch abilities, applaud his defensive versatility, and make homemade t-shirts with his name on the back. With the bases loaded, Scutaro hits his fourth double of the series and clears the bases. The A's are up 8-2 and the crowd is going wild and chanting "Marco! (Clap clap) Scutaro! (Clap clap)" Sometimes one group will yell "Marco!" and another group will yell "Scutaro!" It goes on for a full five minutes. Marco Scutaro hasn't had people cheer for him this way since Little League, if even then. When Scutaro gets his hat and glove from Jimenez, Jimenez gives him a huge, father-returning-from-the-war hug. You don't see a lot of midgame on-field hugging in baseball, but it was completely appropriate.
[Editor's note: Scutaro grew up in Venezuela, so he did not play Little League. In addition, his father was Italian, and his mother was Spanish. They both died before he reached the big leagues, and Scutaro promised his mother on her deathbed that he would make the majors.]
Eighth inning: The game is out of reach. Everyone is deliriously cheering and chanting, almost apart from the action on the field. The Duke appears to be throwing every pitch straight down the middle of the plate, which is how we like it. Monroe! goes deep with two outs, and the fans stop cheering for about three seconds. Then a fan throws the home run ball back onto the field, and it's all cheers again. Torii Hunter makes an out by accident for the first time and the A's are three outs away.
Ninth inning: Ken Macha does an NBA-like thing and lets The Duke warm up in the ninth inning, so he can get an ovation when he's removed before the first batter. Huston Street comes in to pitch. I trust The Duke more, but it's a five-run lead! Who cares?
Rondell White singles, and Lew Ford comes in to pinch-run. Not that it matters, but this is a bizarre situation in which to use a pinch-runner. Maybe Lew Ford's dad brought snacks for the team, and Gardenhire feels bad not letting Ford get in the game after that. Jason Tyner does not follow with a home run, and instead hits into a double play, highlighted by a sweet turn by none other than the new mayor of Oakland, Marco Scutaro. Lew Ford was in the game for approximately 23 seconds.
There are two outs. The A's are up five runs, and a fan behind me calls the umpire a "fucking idiot" for not calling a strike. Jason Bartlett singles, and aside from his poor baserunning and unceasing defensive failures, he's had a pretty good series. Luis Castillo flies out to left and it's over. The A's have won a playoff series for the first time in 16 years. The Dodgers look like a bunch of suckers now, huh?
Postgame: A woman in our row begins tossing confetti. Perhaps inevitably, Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" plays. Swisher, Street, and Chavez get together for a "Go Bayside"-style high-five. We speculate as to whether the ban on alcohol in the Oakland clubhouses, created after Esteban Loaiza's DUI arrest, will be lifted for the playoffs. Our questions are answered when Loaiza appears on the Jumbotron, spraying a cop with champagne. Bobby Kielty is wearing extremely silly goggles. He'd smoked a celebratory joint by the top of the eighth, we agree. For some reason, a groundskeeper drags the infield.
In the stands, the crowd begins chanting for Scutaro again. All the way out of the stadium, fans do not stop yelling "Marco! Scutaro!" It is amazing and touching that the fans have assigned credit for the biggest win in a decade to the least-heralded player on the team. But lest we get too sentimental, remember that Scutaro also has an extremely fun name to chant.