Big mad scramble

Originally Published: October 2, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Weak Supporting Cast: For the last five seasons, the Big Three of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson has propped up the Oakland Athletics' success, like bearing walls in a house, and whenever they struggled -- in the postseason annually -- the weaknesses of the rest of the team have been borne out. And when the Big Three struggled in the pennant drive, Oakland utterly collapsed, the Athletics' spiral completed with a late-inning defeat Saturday. The Anaheim Angels scored three runs in the top of the eighth inning to beat the Athletics 5-4 and clinch the AL West. Zito actually pitched well, turning over a 4-2 lead to the bullpen in the eighth inning. But Jim Mecir allowed a couple of hits, Ricardo Rincon surrendered a game-tying double to Darin Erstad, and Garret Anderson broke the 4-4 tie with a run-scoring single off Octavio Dotel. On Sept. 5, the Athletics had a record of 81-54, but as the Big Three mostly floundered, the A's lost 17 of their last 26. Mulder, Zito and Hudson have not beaten a team with a winning record in the last two months.

Daunting Team: The Angels don't have overwhelming starting pitching, and they are nagged by injuries. But they will be the AL team nobody wants to play in the postseason because of their incredible bullpen, their aggressiveness and toughness and October experience gained two years ago.

AL Situation: If Anaheim loses the meaningless season finale Sunday and the Minnesota Twins win their two games with the Cleveland Indians, the Boston Red Sox will play the Twins and the Angels will face the New York Yankees. Otherwise, Anaheim will open the Division Series at home against Boston and Minnesota will play the Yankees. The Twins' Saturday game against Cleveland was suspended after 11 innings, with the score tied 5-5, because the Metrodome was needed for the University of Minnesota football game.

NL Situation: The Los Angeles Dodgers were staring at the real possibility for disaster. They had lost Friday, they were losing 3-0 in the ninth inning Saturday, and the reality that they might not make the playoffs was creeping into their frontal lobes. But the San Francisco Giants' Dustin Hermanson -- who was shifted into the closer's role in late July when the Giants felt they had no other options -- imploded in the bottom of the ninth, issuing three walks. After a series of relievers failed to get the last two outs, Jayson Werth hit a game-tying single, bringing Steve Finley to the plate.

Big Finish: Finley, acquired at the trade deadline by Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta, then slugged a game-winning grand slam off Wayne Franklin to beat the Giants 7-3, his walk-off homer clinching the division for L.A. San Francisco's only hope of making the postseason now would be as the wild card, but at the moment of their defeat Saturday, the Giants stood a half-game behind Houston.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine