Kotsay's drive proves to be difference
Inside-the-park homer propels Athletics to 2-0 ALDS lead
MINNEAPOLIS -- Oakland's Mark Kotsay doesn't have any Gold Gloves or All-Star appearances, and prior to the 2006 American League Division Series, he'd played 1,284 regular-season games over 10 years without seeing any postseason action.
Minnesota's Torii Hunter, on the other hand, has five Gold Gloves. He's been an All-Star, and he's been to the playoffs four times now.
In short, Kotsay is the "other" center fielder in this series, so it was more than a little ironic that it was Hunter's ill-fated decision to try to catch a ball hit by Kotsay that put the A's within a game of reaching the AL Championship Series for the first time since 1992.
When Hunter's dive failed to come up with -- or even stop -- Kotsay's line drive to medium center field with two out in the seventh inning of a tied Game 2 at the sold-out Metrodome on Wednesday, Kotsay ended up with a two-run, inside-the-park homer that led the A's to a 5-2 victory over the host Twins and a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five ALDS.
"When it left my bat ... I thought it might get down," Kotsay said. "But Torii is a great center fielder, so I kind of hesitated out of the box a little bit."
That hesitation turned to all-out hustle as the ball rolled to the wall, and as third-base coach Ron Washington waved Kotsay home, hustle turned into heart.
"I think I hit a wall and just gave it everything I have," Kotsay said.
And after beating the throw home, he gave some more -- punching the air in an uncharacteristic display from the normally staid 30-year-old.
"I showed a little more emotion than I'm used to crossing the plate," he conceded. "But obviously, it's the playoffs, and things are exciting."
They stayed exciting for the rest of the game, too. After Nick Swisher doubled and scored on a wild pitch by Twins closer Joe Nathan to give the A's a little more breathing room in the top of the ninth, closer Huston Street gave up a single and a walk in the bottom half.
But with the tying run at the plate with two out in the bottom of the ninth for the second day in a row, Street retired Nick Punto on an infield popup to end it.
"[Darn], Street," Swisher bellowed as the jubilant A's bounced into the visitors' clubhouse. "Why do you always have to make it so [darn] interesting?"
You want interesting? Consider this: The A's haven't advanced past the first round of the postseason since 1992, and they've lost nine consecutive ALDS games in which they had a chance to move on since 2000.
"I wasn't around for any of that, and neither were most of the guys in this room," said Swisher, who has three doubles and a walk in the series. "So I don't want to hear about the past. Let's talk about Friday."
OK. Wednesday's victory sends the A's home to Oakland for Game 3 on Friday and a chance to sweep their way into the ALCS against the Yankees or Tigers.
"We're in a good position, and we feel confident about getting it done," said third baseman Eric Chavez, one of two A's -- the other is Game 1 winner Barry Zito -- who was with the team for their four first-round losses. "That's really all I want to say about it. ... We came in here and played two pretty good ballgames in a place where I don't think anybody gave us a chance to win."
Justin Duchscherer, one of three Oakland relievers who combined for four shutout innings of one-hit work, wasn't around for any of the aforementioned flameouts.
"I don't know much about the history," Duchscherer said. "But I know the odds are in our favor."
Swisher had two of Oakland's six extra-base hits, Marco Scutaro chipped in with an RBI double for the second day in a row, and Jay Payton, Jason Kendall and Mark Ellis also had two hits to give the A's their third 2-0 ALDS lead in seven years.
In 2001, the Yankees came back to win three in a row, including Game 5 in the Bronx. Two years later, the Red Sox stormed back and won Game 5 in Oakland.
Game 4 of this one, if needed, also will be in the A's home park, with a potential Game 5 back at the Metrodome.
"We're up 2-0, and that's it," said general manager Billy Beane. "That means nothing Friday. We've been here before."
Added right fielder Milton Bradley: "Yeah, we're in a good position, but with the Twins, it's really never over."
Game 2 didn't really start until it was more than an hour old. Oakland's Esteban Loaiza and Minnesota's Boof Bonser swapped zeros through the first four frames, but Swisher opened the fifth with a double into the right-field corner and scored on a double by Scutaro to the same general area.
Scutaro moved to third on a right-side groundout by Ellis, and Kendall followed with an RBI single to left for a 2-0 lead.
"All year we've done a tremendous job of getting guys on and getting guys over," Swisher said. "And that inning was a classic example of it. Me and Scoot got the doubles, but what Mark did to get Scoot over was just as important, and Jason got the biggest hit."
Loaiza wobbled a bit in the bottom of the frame, allowing a pair of two-out singles before Chavez made a terrific spinning play on a hot shot off the bat of AL batting champ Joe Mauer to end the inning, but the first two Twins to bat in the sixth put balls where only fans had a shot at them.
Michael Cuddyer led off and crushed a full-count pitch deep into the left-field bleachers. Three pitches later, MVP candidate Justin Morneau, who had just pummeled a foul ball into the upper deck, sent a 1-2 pitch soaring into the same upper tank over right field to tie the game and end Loaiza's afternoon.
Loaiza, who entered the game with the highest career ERA at the Metrodome for an opposing starter (5.66), allowed eight hits without a walk and struck out two on 98 pitches.
"Their hitters did a great job of making him work," said A's manager Ken Macha. "When he got to about 100 pitches, it looked like he was a little bit out of gas."
Righty Kiko Calero (1-0) finished the sixth for Oakland, and the Twins countered with righty Pat Neshek to start the seventh; Bonser gave up seven hits and a walk while striking out three.
"I thought both starters did a nice job," Macha said, "and that set up a nice little battle between two pretty good bullpens."
The A's led the Majors with 54 saves and ranked third in the AL with a 3.60 ERA this year, but Minnesota boasted the Majors' best bullpen ERA at 2.91.
Nonetheless, the A's wasted little time in getting to Neshek and his 'penmates in the seventh. Ellis singled off Neshek (0-1) with one out, and after Kendall reached on a fielder's choice by sprinting hard through the bag to avoid being doubled up. Kotsay -- with a little help from Hunter -- ended up with Oakland's first postseason inside-the-park homer since Ray Durham did it here in 2002.
To a man, the A's found no fault in Hunter's decision to dive.
"I don't think you can really question anything Torii does," said Chavez.
"He's an aggressive outfielder, and I am, too," Kotsay said. "We like to go get it. I don't want to speak for Torii, but if I was put in that situation and had a great break on the ball and felt I had a chance to get it, I would have gone after it. ... And I'm sure he felt like he had a good jump on it, because it looked like he did to me.
"It's too easy to look back and say you shouldn't have if it doesn't work out. And probably a little unfair."
What might be unfair, Chavez suggested, is that Kotsay doesn't get half the attention bestowed upon Hunter.
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Duchscherer coolly dispatched the Twins in the bottom of the seventh, and after righty Juan Rincon struck out the side for Minnesota in the top of the eighth, Duchscherer went back out and was perfect again in the eighth.
"I know they have a great bullpen," Duchscherer said. "But I think we rank pretty high, too. We feel just as confident in our guys as they do in theirs."
Swisher, who will never be accused of lacking confidence, was sure to temper his while the A's prepared for the flight home.
"It's a phenomenal feeling, and we can pat ourselves on the back for it today and on the way home," Swisher said. "But come Friday, we have to play the same way we've played all year. Be loose, have fun and let 'er rip."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.