OAKLAND -- It was an unseasonably toasty 89 degrees at game time as the Yankees and A's began Game 4 of this American League Division Series. Hot enough to make the fans sweat, and apparently hot enough for the Oakland Athletics to melt as they lost to the Yankees, 9-2.
|The A's had a chance to win the ALDS in Oakland, but failed.
The A's came home in the wee hours of Friday morning, just one victory away from putting away the three-time defending World Champions. But that plan was foiled. A day after being stifled by Mike Mussina in a 1-0 Game 3 loss, the A's simply unraveled Sunday.
They didn't pitch, they didn't field and they didn't hit in the clutch. In short, they looked nothing look like the championship team they hope to become. At least not on this day.
Which makes it fair to wonder if the pressure applied by the Yankees' gritty victory Saturday was too much for the young A's.
The A's are 0-for-2 in their chance to land a knockout punch against the champs. They have one chance left.
Maybe they will dethrone the Yankees in Monday night's winner-take-all Game 5 at Yankee Stadium when they send 21-game winner Mark Mulder to the mound against AL Cy Young favorite and future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens.
Or maybe it will be a long and agonizing winter for the A's. Aside from losing the game, they lost their cleanup hitter Jermaine Dye (fractured left tibia) for the season.
If they lose the series, Game 4 is likely the one they will look back on as the reason it got away.
This was the one which saw the Yankees' experience show up, and the A's inexperience come blasting to the forefront.
Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez didn't have his best stuff, but he battled his way out of some big jams -- none bigger than first and third, nobody out and reigning AL MVP Jason Giambi up in the bottom of the first. He popped Giambi up, the pivotal moment in a performance that pushed his postseason record to 9-1.
A's starter Cory Lidle had no such experience to draw on for comfort. This was his first appearance in October, and he pitched like it. The starting pitcher is supposed to set the tone, and Lidle set it with his pitches sailing too frequently out of the strike zone. He was in the shower by the fourth inning.
A little cause and affect at work for a pitcher who was 12-2 with a 2.74 ERA from July 1 to the end of the regular season?
"It's a good possibility that (lack of experience) had something to do with it," said Lidle, who gave up six hits, five hits and four earned runs while walking three. "I was just trying to take this game in stride like it was a regular game. You get out there with a couple of runners on and I was just trying to do a little too much. I've learned from it. I didn't get all mad, I'm going to take this learning experience into the next game."
It's just that there won't be a next game for Lidle if the A's can't get off the mat in what is going to be a rowdy Yankee Stadium Monday.
It wouldn't be fair to single out Lidle though, for putting them in that win or go home predicament. You see, the A's played tight and sloppily in every facet.
The team that has taken the lead has won the first four games in this series. And the Yanks' made it 1-0 in this one when Oakland second baseman F.P. Santangelo -- making his first postseason start -- let Paul O'Neill's seemingly harmless grounder skip by him for an error.
Miscues like that can crush championship hopes. Not that you had to tell the stand-up Santangelo.
"I messed up, no excuses," said Santangelo. "I didn't lose a ball in the sun, I didn't slip on a rock, I just messed up the play. You've got to come out and set the tone, and we didn't offensively and I made the error. You have to make the plays in big games, that's the bottom line."
Hard to believe the A's were suddenly looking like such an untested team when it was just two short days ago they had the Yankees in a 2-0 stranglehold.
And now they are headed across the country again to get back to New York in time for Monday night's contest
No rest for the weary. Judging by the way the A's played in this one, they could use a good night's sleep. But if they don't find a way to win Game 5, they'll have all the time they need to rest.
And they'd be the first team in Division Series' history to win the first two games on the road and lose the series.
While all the pressure that was on the Yankees has suddenly toppled onto the A's, they seemed oblivious to it all after the game. Maybe this is where youth helps them. Maybe they don't realize what an opportunity they've blown, and therefore, they'll come out loose in Game 5.
"That's baseball," A's shortstop Miguel Tejada said. "(Monday) is going to be different. They didn't win it yet. They have to win (Monday). We can't give it up right now. It doesn't matter that we have to go to New York. We've won over there. We just have to go over there and play baseball."
They have to play the type of baseball that put them in the position to put the champs down for the count in the first place. What happened to those razor-sharp A's who were on a 69-20 roll before Saturday's loss?
The Yankees weren't going to merely give away their recent legacy, which includes four championships in the last five seasons. They have way too much pride for that. The A's had to take it from them, and they've squandered both chances to do that thus far.
Clearly, the A's have the talent on both sides of the ball to beat the Yankees. They proved that in the regular season, and in the first two games in New York.
But to be a champion, you need to have killer instinct too. In this one, the A's had none.
Manager Art Howe claims they will let it go. But what else could he say?
"We're not shaken at all," Howe said. "I expected this to go five games and we were pretty fortunate to come in here two up."
The good news is that they have one more chance, and an ace in Mulder who baffled the Yankees in Game 1. And they have a chance to reverse the events of a year ago, when the Yankees lost Game 4 in New York, and flew back to Oakland to eliminate the A's in Game 5 the next day.
"We have to go back to New York and it's going to be a dogfight," said Santangelo. "We can't let today affect us tomorrow."
But it might be too late. When you give the Yankees too many chances, they almost always make you pay.
Ian Browne is a columnist for MLB.com.