OAKLAND -- The Oakland Athletics maintained at least a three-game lead in the American League West over their final 52 games and at least a four-game lead from Aug. 12 until they clinched the division on Sept. 26.

So it wasn't exactly as if they were in an intense playoff race over the final two months of the season.

But things might have been a bit uncomfortable after losing two straight games to the Minnesota Twins Sept. 11-12 at the Metrodome, leaving the Athletics with a 4 1/2-game lead with 18 to play.

Let's just say the Athletics really needed a win when Dan Haren took the mound for that third game in the Metrodome on Sept. 13, and he delivered exactly what they needed.

In maybe his best game of the year, Haren tamed the red-hot Twins by holding them to three singles and a walk over eight innings. Huston Street pitched the ninth for a save, and the Athletics held on for a 1-0 victory, pushing their division lead back up to 5 1/2 games.

"I actually took home the DVD of that start yesterday," Haren said. "Anytime I go into a start against a team that I have faced before, I try to watch a little bit of what I've done, especially if I have had success in the past."

The Athletics hope there's a happy sequel to that DVD. Haren takes the mound against the Twins on Friday afternoon with a shot to close out the American League Division Series with a victory.

If Haren pitches the way he did three weeks ago, the Athletics have a chance to put some playoff ghosts to rest.

"I think, that game, my command was really good," Haren said. "I don't know if I walked anybody, maybe one guy, but when I'm going good, I throw a lot of strikes. Watching them in the first two games, they have been pretty aggressive, and they know I'm going to be throwing strikes, so I've got to use that to my advantage and figure out a way to get some early outs."

Haren must also control his emotions. If he lets them flow out of control, he gets in trouble.

"He has a tendency to fall off a little bit on the mound and get under some balls, and then he has a problem with his location," Oakland manager Ken Macha said. "Then he has a problem with his location, when he doesn't have that timing. He needs to get a good consistent release point, or he gets knocked around a little bit."

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Controlling emotions can be difficult, though, when you're pitching in front of 35,000 or so fans in your own ballpark and you have a chance to put your team in the American League Championship Series.

"I'm going to have a lot of adrenaline going into the game," Haren said. "I've got to control my energy. I'm sure I'm going to have a lot of emotion going into the game, with the opportunity to finish it off. I'm sure I'm going to be amped up, so I think controlling my emotions is going to be a big deal."

He can't let it affect his split-fingered fastball. That's his best pitch -- his punch-out pitch -- and he was sixth in the American League this season with 176 strikeouts.

Laying off it is crucial for the Twins.

"It's such a good pitch for him," Twins outfielder Rondell White said. "His ball moves so much with that split, when he throws it down in the zone. We can't be chasing it. We've got to make him get it up. We need to keep our swings short and quick, not try to do too much or hit home runs."

This could be a big start for Haren in a number of ways, beyond just getting the Athletics into the ALCS.

Haren, 26, was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Mark Mulder trade two years ago and has won 14 games in each of his first two seasons with the Athletics. But this is a guy who Macha says has the second best stuff on the staff behind Rich Harden and has No. 1-starter potential.


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The Athletics will be looking for one of those two guys to ascend to the top of their rotation next season, if they are unable to re-sign Barry Zito. This is a chance for Haren to show he belongs in that class.

"I think I've shown at times this year that I can have No. 1 stuff," Haren said. "When you look at No. 1 starters like Zito, he has been doing it for six years now -- the quality starts, the innings, the wins.

"I don't think I've been able to accomplish those things at this point in my career, but looking at a guy like that and [Johan] Santana, I think at times I've shown I can do that. I definitely wouldn't consider myself a No. 1 starter at this point, but it's something I'm working towards."

Clinching the ALDS with a big performance in Game 3 would be a big step toward that.