Kotsay's Inside-Park Home Run Lifts A's

Wednesday, October 4th 2006, 6:25 am
By: News On 6

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Playing it safe? Not Torii Hunter's style. That's why he has five Gold Gloves. Trying to make a tough catch right after his Minnesota teammates tied the game with back-to-back home runs, Hunter missed _ and Oakland took advantage.

Mark Kotsay circled the bases for a two-run, inside-the-park homer after Hunter's ill-advised dive for a sinking line drive, lifting the Athletics over the Twins 5-2 on Wednesday for a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.

``It was the worst feeling in the world. You can't do anything about it,'' said Hunter, who blamed himself for the defeat.

The A's handled the Boof _ Bonser, that is _ and here's the truth: Oakland has arrived at yet another elimination game. The perennial playoff underperformers are 0-9 in those since 2000, losing four straight first-round series.

``This team knows what to do,'' said Eric Chavez, a regular on all four of those clubs. ``We're hard-nosed baseball players that like to play the game. I don't think anybody here, regardless if they've been in this position, is going to take Game 3 lightly.''

The series shifts west Friday, with Twins right-hander Brad Radke taking his broken shoulder socket to the mound for possibly the final appearance of his 12-year career.

Dan Haren, in his first postseason start, will pitch for Oakland _ which beat Cy Young Award favorite Johan Santana in Game 1 and now gets two chances to close it out at home.

``We've won two games. OK. Congratulations. Good job. But it's not over yet,'' said Nick Swisher, who doubled against Juan Rincon and scored on Joe Nathan's wild pitch in the ninth.

The A's had one mishap in the ninth, however. Second baseman Mark Ellis broke his right index finger swinging at a high, inside pitch, and Oakland said it would update his condition at Thursday's workout.

For the Twins, it's certainly not over, considering they came from 12 1/2 games back to win the AL Central. Plus, there's the recent history of these A's, even though Chavez and Barry Zito are the only players remaining from 2000 and just a handful are left from 2003.

``We've been backed up before,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. ``We've been told, 'you're done' before. That's not something that this team takes too lightly. We'll come out and battle. We'll give them everything we have.''

Oakland starter Esteban Loaiza slipped in the sixth inning, surrendering consecutive solo homers to Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau that evened the game at 2.

But with Jason Kendall on first, two outs in the seventh and reliever Dennys Reyes pitching, Kotsay hit what should have been a single. Hunter, bothered by a sore left foot this season, charged forward.

The ball sliced to Hunter's left, and his reach wasn't long enough to get near it.

``There's only one person in this league that can make that catch, and it's Torii,'' said Cuddyer, who watched from right field. ``Although it's as close as you come, he's not Superman.''

Added Gardenhire: ``When he goes after a ball, I don't second-guess him. Ever.''

Kotsay, also a center fielder, felt bad for Hunter.

``Once you commit, you're kind of in no-man's land, and it's best to go,'' Kotsay said. ``He went, and for his sake, unfortunately, the ball took off.''

Nobody was more disappointed than Hunter.

``You sit there and say, 'Man, I feel like less than a man right now,''' he said.

Bonser struck out three in six innings, giving up two runs and seven hits. Sidearmer Pat Neshek, who took the loss, started the seventh before yielding to Reyes.

Marco Scutaro hit an RBI double for the second straight game, and Huston Street worked the ninth for his second save in as many days after blowing 11 chances during the regular season. Street gave up a single to Jason Bartlett and a walk to Luis Castillo, but he retired Nick Punto on a popup on a 3-2 pitch with batting champion Joe Mauer on deck.

``We came here and did the unthinkable in most people's eyes,'' Swisher said.

After Scutaro drove him Swisher with a double, Kendall's one-out RBI single gave the A's a 2-0 lead.

Loaiza, who had an up-and-down year marked by a trip to the disabled list in May, a drunken-driving arrest in June and an outstanding August, scattered six singles over the first five innings and had flawless defense behind him from Swisher at first base, Scutaro at shortstop and Chavez at third. He was looking strong until he left a 3-2 pitch over the plate for Cuddyer to crush into the seats.

Morneau came next, sending a 1-2 delivery soaring into the upper deck. Suddenly, the game was tied and Loaiza was leaving the mound, replaced by Kiko Calero _ who got three outs and, eventually, the win.

Minnesota won championships in 1987 and 1991 without winning a single road game in either of those World Series, and the Metrodome _ with the deteriorating, dust-colored ceiling and the din of a sellout crowd _ is a difficult place for opponents.

The advantage seems outdated now. The Twins _ whose 54-27 home record this year was baseball's best _ have lost seven straight at the Dome in the postseason. Their last win coming in Game 1 of the 2002 AL championship series against the Angels.

``That's absolutely crazy,'' Gardenhire said.

Notes: Including the 2003 division series against Boston, Chavez is in a 1-for-30 postseason slump. ... In 12 career first-round games, Cuddyer is batting .400 (16-for-40) with five RBIs. ... Ray Durham hit the last playoff inside-the-park homer for the A's, against Minnesota exactly four years ago in Game 3 of the division series here. ... Frank Thomas is 4-for-7 with a walk and 11 total bases for Oakland in the series. ... The A's won their first two games in New York in 2001, then lost three in a row.