CINCINNATI -- They did it the easy way, they did it the hard way. The Cincinnati Reds lead this otherworldly series two games to none, and their 5-4 victory in 10 innings last night was one Oakland won't soon forget.
The game featured one unlikely hero after another for Cincinnati, questionable managing by Oakland mastermind Tony La Russa, nooks and crannies that will be discussed for years to come.
Unless the A's rebound from their shocking deficit when play resumes in Oakland tomorrow, it will go down as a turning point not just in this World Series, but probably for the Oakland franchise as well.
Heaven knows what the A's will do if they fail to win a second straight world title with the collection of All-Stars they've assembled. But suddenly, the possibility is very real.
"We feel awful in here," said Oakland reliever Dennis Eckersley, who gave up three straight one-out singles in the 10th for his second career World Series loss (Kirk Gibson, remember?). "The pressure is on us. Big time."
The last three teams to win the Series did so after taking 2-0 leads. The overall success rate for such teams is 76 percent. For teams that gained the advantage at home -- like Cincinnati -- it's 84 percent.
One thing is certain: The Reds can not lose the Series in Oakland, even if they are swept in Games 3, 4 and 5. Not after beating Dave Stewart 7-0 in Game 1, not after fighting off 27-game winner Bob Welch to defeat Eckersley last night.
The A's were 90-2 leading after seven innings, but they blew their 4-3 edge after La Russa allowed Welch to pitch to Billy Hatcher to start the eighth. Hatcher already had two doubles and a single, and his triple off rightfielder Jose Canseco's glove led to the tying run.
"We've proven we can beat their best," said winning pitcher Rob Dibble, one of four Cincinnati relievers who combined to pitch 7 1/3 scoreless innings. "I'm sure everyone in the world is saying, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe it.' The Cincinnati Reds believe it. It's true."
It's true because infield reserve Billy Bates started the winning rally with his first hit as a Red, an artificial turf chopper to third base. Bates is a bit player in more ways than one -- he's 5 feet 7, and he was added to the playoff roster only after Bill Doran underwent back surgery.
It's true because following a single by Chris (3-for-5) Sabo, .231 hitter Joe Oliver scored Bates from second with a bouncer down the leftfield line. "When I came around third base, I saw Dunc jump up and down with his arms over his head," Bates said, referring to A's pitching coach Dave Duncan. "I pretty much knew we had won."
And it's true because of the wondrous Hatcher, who has set a Series record with seven straight hits -- the same total as Canseco, Rickey Henderson and Mark McGwire combined. He has outscored Oakland 5-4, and including two walks (one intentional) he has yet to be retired.
Of his lucky seven, his leadoff triple in the eighth was easily the most important, for it was the one that finally reversed the flow of the game. Lefthander Danny Jackson allowed all four Oakland runs in 2 2/3 innings. The Reds spent the rest of the night catching up.
This one was lively from the start, the A's pushing ahead in the first with a typical Henderson run (single, stolen base, sacrifice, Canseco groundout), the Reds storming to a 2-1 lead in the bottom half after back-to-back leadoff doubles by Barry Larkin (3-for-5) and Hatcher.
Canseco hit the A's first home run in six postseason games to ignite a three-run rally in the third, but his opposite-field blast was a foreshadow of things to come. All night flyballs carried exceptionally well to rightfield. Hatcher's triple was no different, much to Canseco's chagrin.
The Reds closed within 4-3 in the fourth on Oliver's double and Ron Oester's single, his first RBI as a pinch hitter in seven years. But until the late innings the A's smallest player had the game's biggest hit. Little did the 5-8 Mike Gallego know he would be upstaged by the 5-7 Bates.
Gallego knocked out Jackson with an RBI single, the A's only hit in 19 at-bats with men in scoring position thus far. It stood as the game-winner for five innings, but during that time Scott Scudder (1 1/3 innings), Jack Armstrong (three) and Norm Charlton (one) shut down the A's.
As Reds manager Lou Piniella noted, "They're the ones who gave us an opportunity to come back." Welch, too, was strong in the middle innings, and La Russa did not lift him for a pinch hitter with a one-run lead, one on and one out in the eighth.
It was the game's most fateful decision. La Russa, however, said it would have gone the other way if Gallego executed a sacrifice following Ron Hassey's leadoff single. Instead Gallego bounced into a fielder's choice, and with no runner in scoring position, La Russa bunted Welch.
Hence, Welch-Hatcher IV. Canseco admitted he should have caught Hatcher's wind-blown fly to right-center -- "When we do come back here, I'll be against the fence," he said. La Russa used stronger language. "If you want to win the game," he said, "you've got to make that play."
But Hatcher nearly let the A's escape following a walk to Paul O'Neill, choosing not to tag on Eric Davis' fly to medium right. Lefthander Honeycutt replaced Welch to face Hal Morris. Piniella countered with pinch hitter Glenn Braggs.
It was Braggs' 28th birthday, and he celebrated in high style. Gallego, the A's shortstop, fielded his bouncer on the first-base side of second. Unable to touch the bag, he tagged O'Neill. Braggs dove safely into first to beat the double play, enabling Hatcher to score.
"When the ball bounces your way, some beautiful things can happen," said Braggs, who played in Milwaukee with Bates before getting traded to Cincinnati for pitcher Ron Robinson on June 9.
Beautiful things keep happening for the Reds.
Magical things. Wonderful things.