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Getting there no longer enough

In their long, tortured history, seldom have the Boston Red Sox entered a postseason series as the team experiencing less pressure -- self-generated or otherwise. Go 85 years between championships, and every series feels pressurized.

Not this time.

When the Red Sox open their American League Division Series against the Oakland A's tonight, it's the A's who will be faced with expectations.

The A's may have won nearly 400 games over the last four regular seasons, but when it comes to October, they haven't won a thing.

In 2000 and 2001, the A's were bounced in the first round by the New York Yankees. Last fall, they fell victim to the Minnesota Twins. Now, here they are again, still trying to figure out a way to get to the League Championship Series.

Winners of three of last four AL West titles -- with one wild-card appearance thrown in -- Oakland's accomplishments are not insignificant. Beyond the A's, only the Atlanta Braves and the Yankees have qualified for the postseason in each of the last four seasons. And both the Braves and Yankees have, conservatively speaking, three times the resources of the A's.

But the A's don't have much to show for their regular season excellence. In between some miserable stretches in the late 1970s and again in the mid-1990s, the A's have a proud championship tradition, winning world titles in 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1989, while winning league pennants in 1988 and 1990.

If these A's are to match up with those A's, they need to win a postseason series or two. Fast.

``We're not going to be this good forever,'' acknowledged Game 1 starter Tim Hudson. ``Our window of opportunity is smaller every year, and we need to take advantage of it now.''

Hudson's right. For all of Billy Beane's brilliance, the A's can't reasonably expect to challenge for a championship every year. Economics won't allow it.

The A's have already lost Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi to free agency. Miguel Tejada will soon follow. Before long, it will be too expensive for the A's to retain homegrown stars such as Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Eric Chavez. Chavez is eligible for free agency after the 2004 season.

The exodus of talent isn't likely to slow without a new ballpark, for which there are currently no plans.

In Michael Lewis' best seller, "Moneyball,'' Beane was famously quoted as saying that his job was to get the A's to the playoffs. What they do once they get there, Beane suggested, was beyond his control.

Some found this logic disingenuous and a not-too-subtle way for Beane to pass blame for his team's playoff failures.

But the fact is, Beane had a point. There is, as Beane likes to say, a ``certain randomness'' about the postseason. Favorites lose; underdogs win. The ball sometimes takes a funny bounce, a theory to which the Sox can surely attest.

``Look at the Kansas City Royals of the 1970s,'' said Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, Beane's former assistant and his closest friend in the game. ``All those years, they couldn't beat the Yankees (in the ALCS), couldn't beat the Yankees. Then, they finally do, and get to the World Series (in 1980) and lose. They were still a great team. I don't think Billy has to apologize for anything.''

Still, it's as if the A's can hear their biological clocks ticking. If their Big Three -- Hudson, Zito and Mulder -- eventually leave, all the prescient projections and statistical methodology in the world aren't necessarily going to replace them.

The Red Sox have their own issues, of course.

After next season, Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek are free agent-eligible. Even with one of the handful of biggest payrolls in the game and revenues in the top three, it would seem impossible for the Sox to retain them all.

Tough decisions will have to be made. And if some of the stars appear unsignable, the Sox may be forced into dealing some of them off to get some compensation than a draft pick in return.

But the Red Sox can start over. If they lose a star player or two, they can sign others to replace them. Thanks to a substantial scouting budget, general manager Theo Epstein can take some chances with draft picks.

The Sox, in other words, can spend their way back to contention. Perhaps not as freely as the Yankees, but certainly with more ease than the budget-conscious A's.

The time is now.

``There's two ways of looking at it,'' reflects Beane of past playoff disappointments. ``No. 1, there's nothing I can do about it. No. 2, I thought the 2001 club was the best team we've had here and we didn't win it. So my mindset is, we're in. It doesn't matter who's on the roster and who's not.

``The whole thing gives me a sense of balance -- knowing that if I get us there enough times, we're going to win it. It allows me to know that every year, we have a chance.''

But for how long?

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.