Scrapbook Memories celebrates the 20th anniversary of Oakland's last World Series triumph. The A's have braved the storm that saw them lose several key players to injury, and enter July in first place, with the Angels, Royals, and Rangers in hot pursuit.
For the teams chasing the A's in the American League West, their window of opportunity was closing fast. Sure there were still three full months of baseball left to play, but Tony La Russa's club was getting close to being at full strength, a shuddering thought for those with aspirations of sneaking away with the division crown. Both Jose Canseco (who missed the team's first 88 games) and Dennis Eckersley (sidelined for 40 games) were slated to return to action after the Break.
As it was, Rickey Henderson wasted little time in making himself at home since being re-acquired by the A's on June 21. In the July opener at Cleveland Stadium, Rickey entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning with the score tied at three, and runners at first and second with one out. The future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer promptly singled to drive home a run, took second on a error (that scored a second run), stole third base, and waltzed home on a base hit by Dave Henderson.
Same as it ever was.
Rickey was at it again the next day, with a homerun to lead off the game, two singles, a walk, a steal, and three runs scored. Oakland completed a three-game sweep of the Indians with an 11-3 thumping, and reached the halfway point of the season sporting the best record in baseball. The guy in charge took notice:
"I've developed such an affinity to this team", said La Russa. "There are still 81 games to go. There are still a lot of big games ahead of us. But there are days to pat ‘em on the back, and this is one of them."
Looking back on it now, I am not so sure La Russa ever got his just due for keeping the A's in the thick of things under less-than-ideal circumstances.
With the A's back home to face the pesky Kansas City Royals, it was time for another local boy to play hero. Dave Stewart pitched eight shutout innings (4H, 1 BB, 7K), at one time retiring 20 batters in succession. Asked once again to go head-to-head with the opposing team's ace, in this case KC's Mark Gubicza, Stew was up to the task in a 1-0 victory. In consecutive starts opposite Dave Stieb, Frank Viola, and Gubicza, Stewart went 3-0 with an 0.72 ERA. If given the choice, the St. Elizabeth High grad would have preferred a little breathing room:
"I'd like to go out there one day and get some tunas, guys who will give you three or four runs, but it hasn't worked out that way."
On his tendency to struggle at the outset, Stew shrugged it off:
"The early part of the game still belongs to the other clubs. I do take pride that I can take control of the middle innings."
The Royals bounced back to thump the A's 10-1, with Bo Jackson homering twice for Kansas City, and won in extra-innings the following night. Bo knew power, but he also knew speed, and his two stolen bases ignited the Royals in a game that lasted four hours and twelve minutes. Worst of all, the loss pushed the A's out of first place, a half-game behind the Angels.
La Russa turned to Mike Moore to salvage the four-game series, and he delivered a 3-1 victory while striking out a dozen batters.
All of which made his manager beam with pride:
"I don't think you can give Mike Moore enough credit. We're coming off a heartbreaking loss late last night, and he gets us a split by just shutting down a team that's been hitting the tar out of the ball."
The Royals had an understandably different take; this from Kevin Seitzer, who cried foul at Moore's newest weapon, the forkball:
"It's a nasty pitch. I faced him last year, and he had a good fastball, but it was pretty straight. And he had a pretty good slider. But that forkball is really nasty. I'd never seen him throw it before. Whoever invented the forkball needs to be shot."
After dropping two straight to the Texas Rangers, the A's headed into the Break on a high note. Rickey ran (3 times he scored) and McGwire mashed (a 6th inning blast), providing more than enough support for Bob Welch in a 7-1 laugher.
Play resumed on July 13 in Toronto. It was a preview of the American League Championship Series, in more ways than one. How would you like to be pitcher Jimmy Key that day, with a lineup like this: Rickey, Lansford, the other Henderson, McGwire, Steinbach, Canseco (batting sixth!), Parker (seventh!), Hubbard, and Gallego?
Mommy, my tummy hurts.
Before Jose even had his first turn at bat, the A's were up 4-0. The first three batters singled, and McGwire hit a 3-run moon shot. Canseco would soon join the party with a homerun of his own in the seventh, and the A's rolled, 11-7.
Stellar performances by Dave Stieb and Mike Flanagan brought the bashers back to earth, and once again Oakland rode the arm of Mike Moore to gain a split in a four-game set.
A 2-1 loss at Detroit was followed by five straight wins. For all the nightmares caused by the hitters, the A's showed they were still about pitching, and it showed in the scores of their streak: 7-2, 5-2, 3-2, 3-1, and 3-2. Filthy.
A sweep of Baltimore set the stage for an AL West showdown between the A's and Angels, who went into their three-game series tied for first.
But the upstart contender knocked the champ to the canvas, not once, but twice, and it took a running catch by Dave Henderson in the third game to save the A's from getting the broom treatment. On their home turf, no less.
On Friday July 28, life and baseball crossed paths, with the A's demonstrating a resiliency that they would call on again come October. Starter Bob Welch became a father for the first time the night before, only to lose his mother the following morning. And still he pitched, leaving after seven innings with a 6-3 lead, only to see a normally reliable bullpen cough up the lead. But the A's battled back, rallying for a run in the tenth to tie, and winning on a Lansford single in the eleventh. Still, all the talk surrounded Welch afterwards. La Russa:
"This game is heartless, man. If Bob Welch ever deserved to win, today is the day. The script was for him to win, but it just didn't happen. Put yourself in his shoes. Nobody in the world was happier to be a father than Bob. He goes from that to losing his mom, and then he goes out and pitches like he did."
The A's closed out July with a pair of wins, the latter in dramatic fashion that saw them go from a possible 2-1/2 games behind the Angels to a mere half game back. All in the matter of two at-bats. When Tony Phillips stepped to the plated with a man on and no outs in the bottom of the ninth, his team was down 2-1, and California was on top of Seattle 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth. Phillips took a peek at the scoreboard before digging in against Chicago's Bobby Thigpen, and saw the "4" for Seattle change to a "6" (courtesy of Jim Presley's two-run homer). After fouling off a bunt attempt, Phillips turned on a Thigpen heater for an improbable walk-off win.
I was at that game and remember it well, even the buzz that was created by the Mariners' comeback before Tony went deep. Phillips did not gain any additional adrenaline after Seattle forged ahead; well, not any that he was admitting to:
"I saw it, but that doesn't help you hit a 90 mph fastball. We can't spend too much time worrying about what they do. All we control is our own destiny."
July was in the books, and things were just about back to normal. The Royals and Rangers had faded some, now six games off the pace. But the Angels were still hanging around, with that tiny half-game lead. Yes, even with the A's at full strength, there was going to be a race after all.