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Athletics go home,their megos bashed by Reds, bruisers

OAKLAND,CALIF. — OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Oakland Coliseum was ready to rock by the time the American League Championship Series arrived here last week. But much has changed since then.

The aura of invincibility that surrounded the Oakland Athletics when they were host to the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the playoffs will not be visible when the erstwhile Bash Brothers take the field tonight for the third game of the World Series. The Cincinnati Reds have a disarming way about them, and it has left the A's with more bruised egos than bashed forearms.

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Where have all the home runs gone? That is the question that dogs an Oakland team that seems powerless to answer it. Jose Canseco hit an impressive shot in Game 2 Wednesday night, but there has been little else to indicate that this is the same club that has hammered the American League into submission three years in a row.

The playoffs were no cause for alarm, because the four-game sweep proved that the A's have more to offer than just a one-dimensional offense. But after they scored in only two innings in the first two games against the Reds, manager Tony La Russa had to wonder.

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"For us to score a lot of runs, the guys in the middle have to get hot," La Russa said. "We win games because our 7, 8 and 9 guys xTC do things like they did [Wednesday night] or Rickey [Henderson] lights it up for us and makes something happen. But for us to put a lot of runs on the board, we have to get the middle guys going."

Where has all the bluster gone? The A's came into the postseason bursting with confidence, and they weren't afraid to say so. Now they are sniping at each other and threatening to self-destruct.

Both La Russa and pitcher Dave Stewart pointed accusingly at Canseco, who got a bad jump on Billy Hatcher's eighth-inning triple in Game 2 and allowed the ball to glance off his glove. La Russa said the play should have been made and questioned Canseco's concentration level. Stewart was drawn into the controversy and set off a minor clubhouse feud.

"I think too many things are becoming an interference for him to concentrate for a whole nine innings," Stewart told the San Francisco Examiner. "Mainly, battling with umpires and questioning balls and strikes. You can't concentrate on what you have to do up there. His concentration level is shot."

Canseco has been playing hurt, but La Russa didn't think the eighth-inning misplay resulted from any physical limitation.

"I think distracted is a good word," he said.

This all came as a shock to Canseco, who wondered aloud whether La Russa's opinion was just fallout from a frustrating loss.

"If that's what he says, then that's his problem," Canseco said. "If he wants to hang the loss on one play, he's totally wrong."

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The two of them apparently patched up their differences during a lengthy meeting at the Oakland Coliseum late yesterday afternoon.

If this is beginning to sound like 1988 all over again, it should. The A's were expected to rout the Los Angeles Dodgers that year, but never got focused on the job at hand. By the time the A's figured out what was wrong, the Dodgers were pouring champagne all over each other.

It could happen here again. The Reds suddenly believe that they can play with the A's, even if they remain decidedly overmatched on paper. The two best Oakland starting pitchers -- Stewart and Bob Welch -- came out of Cincinnati without one victory, leaving it up to Mike Moore (13-15 during the regular season) to keep the Series from getting out of hand.

Nice predicament. Moore enters tonight's game with the weight of his team's intimidating reputation on a right shoulder that hasn't distinguished itself in less-pressurized situations this year. won a playoff game against the Red Sox, but not under these conditions.

There is no such drop-off in the Reds rotation. Left-hander Tom Browning has averaged 16 victories the past three seasons. He had mixed results in the National League Championship Series (1-1, 3.28 ERA), but is a quality, finesse pitcher who should keep the A's off balance.

If he can do so for any reasonable length of time, the A's will have to figure out a way to get past the Reds' bullpen, which dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the playoffs and has run off 9 1/3 scoreless innings against the A's in the first two games of the World Series.

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There was some question going into the Series how the Reds' Nasty Boys bullpen would stack up against the more experienced A's relief staff, but it has been no contest. Oakland relievers have given up four runs in six innings through the first two games, and stopper Dennis Eckersley looked anything but unbeatable in Game 2.

The A's would like to think it won't come down to that. They need to make an offensive statement, and not the one they made against the Red Sox. Browning has been known to give up fly balls with some regularity. The A's have been known to hit the ball in the air with some regularity. The determining factor in tonight's game might be the distance those fly balls travel.

Browning said he's looking forward to pitching at the Oakland Coliseum, and why not? He has a 7-1 record on the road this year, compared with an 8-8 mark at Riverfront Stadium.

"This [Riverfront] is a hitter's ballpark without much foul territory," Browning said. "I'm a fly-ball pitcher, and a lot of the fly balls that go out of here would be on the warning tracks at other parks."

The Coliseum is one of baseball's most spacious parks, but that hasn't kept the A's from reaching the fences when their offense is in tune. Canseco and Mark McGwire have yet to meet a fence they couldn't reach, but there is the small matter of meeting the ball solidly.

Oakland should be in better position to do that at home, where designated hitter Harold Baines will be in the lineup every day, but Reds manager Lou Piniella isn't ready to concede an advantage at a position that doesn't exist in the National League.

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"We're going somewhere where we play on grass and the DH comes into play, so it's going to be a little different ballgame," Piniella said. "I think the DH will allow us to do a few different things with our lineup."



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