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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Curve Is the Curse

Oakland's Zito baffles Red Sox with his favorite pitch, striking out nine, and A's use a big second inning for a 5-1 victory and a 2-0 series lead.

October 03, 2003|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — When left-hander Barry Zito throws his curveball for the Oakland A's, consider it a velocity lesson. Zito's softly breaking curve has three speeds: slow, slower and wake-me-up-when-it-gets-here, each level equally effective when he's pitching the way he did Thursday afternoon against the Boston Red Sox.

There may be only one way to describe Zito's seven-inning, nine-strikeout door-slamming of the Red Sox that showed the A's the way to a 5-1 victory before 36,505 and gave them a commanding 2-0 lead in their American League division series.

"Nasty," A's shortstop Miguel Tejada said. "I don't know how you figure out how to try and hit him. He's tough, man."

Zito gave up only five hits, and once he got into a rhythm with his curve, he struck out five consecutive batters in the fourth and fifth, all of them on curveballs. He struck out another in the sixth, two in the seventh and then took a seat in the dugout.

If the Red Sox were expecting to get even in this series, Zito threw them a curve.

"There was never a plan to throw curveballs to everybody," Zito said. "But when it's working pretty good, it's hard to get away from it because you second-guess yourself. It was pretty good today."

Pretty good? Oakland center fielder Eric Byrnes, whose double to left knocked in two runs in a five-run second inning, says Zito was better than that.

"Lights out," Byrnes said. "He is amazing. It was just a joy to watch. Barry was just so good, they weren't able to put up any runs. Look at Nomar [Garciaparra] and David Ortiz or Manny [Ramirez], you don't want any of those guys on base and get momentum going. That's a tribute to our pitching staff."

Speaking of momentum, the Red Sox have none, but at least they're heading back to Fenway Park with a chance to get back into the series before the A's end it with one more victory.

"Now we have no choice but to come back," Red Sox Manager Grady Little said. "We've got to win now."

If so, the Red Sox are going to have to score more runs than they have in the first two games, a total of five in 21 innings. The Red Sox are hitting .228 and have struck out 21 times in 79 official at-bats.

Ramirez is one for eight and Ortiz 0 for 9, and they're the two biggest sluggers in the most imposing lineup in the majors this year. Ramirez has made the last out of the inning seven times in two games and Ortiz has had to lead off seven innings.

"It's a little uncharacteristic of his club," Little said. "And now we'll be going back to Fenway and hope we can get it back on track right away, because we have no time to waste."

The A's wasted little time getting to Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield, who had one bad inning, the second, but that was enough. Jose Guillen walked with one out and moved to second on a passed ball. Ramon Hernandez singled to right, scoring Guillen. After Jermaine Dye was hit by a knuckleball, Byrnes connected with a pitch up over the plate and knocked it over Ramirez's head, off the wall in left field, scoring Hernandez and Dye for a 3-0 lead.

Mark Ellis walked, and with two out, Eric Chavez grounded to second baseman Todd Walker, who threw wildly past first baseman Kevin Millar, allowing Byrnes and Ellis to score and the A's, with only two hits in the inning, had a 5-0 lead.

Zito gave up doubles to Doug Mirabelli and Johnny Damon in the third as the Red Sox cut the A's lead to 5-1, but that was all they could manage.

"He did a great job to keep the score to just one run," A's Manager Ken Macha said of Zito, who is 3-1 with a 2.03 earned-run average in four playoff starts. Wakefield settled down and gave up only one more hit through six innings, but Oakland relievers Chad Bradford and Keith Foulke finished it off and sent the Red Sox home winless in two games.

"They are a great offensive team," Hernandez said. "They are very dangerous, still."

Besides, the A's remember all too well the 2001 playoffs, when they won the first two games against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium but lost the next three. Hernandez said that what happened then has no bearing on the 2003 team.

"This is a new one," he said. "We cannot think in the back. We have to look forward."

Tejada says the A's are confident and ready for Fenway.

"We have been ahead, 2-0, before, yes, but for me, I don't really think about that year. It is in the past. Now we play a new team, everybody feels comfortable. We're going to try to wrap it up."

And if they don't?

Zito is traveling with the team to Boston today, but he will fly back by himself Saturday to get ready, in case there is a Game 5.

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