Confident A's plan to put away Red Sox


BOSTON -- A "Perry Mason" rerun showed up on the television in the Oakland Athletics' clubhouse late Saturday night, which was perfectly inappropriate. The prevailing opinion among the players in the cluttered, contented room was that the mystery had vanished from the American League Championship Series after their 9-1 flummoxing of the Red Sox in Game 1.

Jose Canseco spoke to interviewers in Spanish and English, saying the same things each time. "This really hurts them," he said. "If we win the next game, this thing could be over." Implied in his confident, casual tone was that the outcome of the next game, as well as the series, should be obvious to all.

Certainly, the Red Sox had placed the brunt of their thin hopes on winning Game 1. They were at home, on an emotional high and, most importantly, had Roger Clemens pitching. But after Clemens' tender shoulder lasted only six shutout innings and the A's destroyed Boston's bullpen, the Red Sox found themselves at a striking disadvantage.

Consider: In Game 2 last night at Fenway Park, a game the Red Sox absolutely had to win to keep this series from careening toward a sweep, the A's started a 27-game winner and the Sox started a 29-year-old rookie who drove a UPS truck last winter while he thought about quitting baseball.

"They gave it their best shot and we still won, and now we're giving it our best shot," said Oakland's Rickey Henderson, putting the matter in terms that underlined Boston's desperate circumstance. (Mostly, Rickey just let his wide, this-thing-is-over smile do the talking.)

Oakland's 27-game winner was Bob Welch, in the middle of a career year at age 33 after finding a forkball and losing his tendency to get flustered. His career total of 176 wins was 168 higher than his Boston counterpart, Dana Kieker, who spent six years in the minors before breaking in this year.

Kieker is a broad, athletic right-hander from a place called Sleepy Eye, Minn., who as a UPS man last winter was, in his own words, "the man in the brown suit tooting his horn and driving like a maniac" around Minneapolis. It was a living, although a temporary one. Baseball was still his vocation, but he was waffling. He had spent too many years in the minors.

"I never actually thought about quitting -- retiring is a better word," he said. "Then I got married and my goals changed a little. My wife and I sat down and discussed things, and she said, 'You've come too far. I think you can pitch. Let's give it one more try.' "

Kieker spent the off-season working, as usual, with his old friend and fellow Minnesotan, Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach, who lives nearby. Their routine in prior years was to find a high school gym or some open space where they could work out, pitcher throwing to catcher. Steinbach changed that by cashing in some of his World Series riches and building a workout facility in his backyard.

"Lighted, heated, carpeted," Steinbach said with no small amount of pride Saturday night. "Dana called me up and said 'Can I still work out with you at home?' and I said sure, it works out perfectly."

They spent long hours working inside Steinbach's new walk-in toy. Kieker never openly mentioned that he was contemplating xTC retirement, although he did seek Steinbach's counsel on the issue of whether he should keep working to make the major leagues.

"He asked me what I thought," Steinbach said, "and I said that from what I could see, I thought he could get major league hitters out, that he had the kind of stuff that belonged with a lot of the pitchers I had worked with and against. But I told him that it was up to him, that he had to go out and prove it."

Given little chance to make the team, Kieker stuck coming out of spring training -- having lockout-padded rosters didn't hurt -- and never came close to going back down. He wasn't Cy Young, but he went 8-9, reached the seventh inning in 12 of his 25 starters and, importantly, won four critical games down the stretch, earning him the start last night when Mike Boddicker needed an extra day of rest.

"In four years of college (at St. Cloud State) I don't think I was better than 8-12," he said. "I was 11-5 one year at Elmira, 12-12 in the Florida State League. I was 8-9 in Triple A and no one batted an eyelash. Now I'm 8-9 here and I'm great."

It's a warm story, but the A's obviously couldn't care less. They wouldn't admit it Saturday night, but to them Kieker represented a chance to put the series away. Winning two in Boston before going home to Oakland for three would be close to checkmate, and Kieker is not exactly the stuff of legend.

"From what I read in the papers, the Red Sox viewed the first game as a make or break game," said Oakland's Dave Stewart, the winning pitcher. "Whether that's true, I don't know. But I know that from now on, they're going to need to do a lot of things right."

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