Chavez, Zito savor A's trip to ALCS

Chavez, Zito savor A's trip to ALCS

OAKLAND -- Nine times in four playoff series since 2000, the A's had lost games that would have sent them to the American League Championship Series.

So when No. 10 turned out to be the charm, the only two players who had experienced the numbness of the previous nine found each other.

For lefty starter Barry Zito, who beat probable Cy Young winner Johan Santana in the series opener, and third baseman Eric Chavez, who snapped out of a nasty postseason funk just in time to provide a spark in the clincher, the embrace they shared after Oakland closed out a three-game sweep over the visiting Twins was as sweet as it was short.

"It was a quick little moment, a quick hug," Chavez said. "But it was pretty powerful. We've been through a lot."

"Neither of us really said anything," said Zito. "I think we just wanted to check to make sure the monkey wasn't still on the other guy's back."

Thanks to the Friday heroics of Chavez, Marco Scutaro, Milton Bradley, Dan Haren and several others who took star turns during an 8-3 victory in Game 3 before a sellout crowd at McAfee Coliseum, the primate has indeed been removed.

"I couldn't be happier for Barry and Eric," A's manager Ken Macha said moments after drilling first baseman Nick Swisher's mug with a laser-like spray of bubbly from point-blank range in the victors' delirious clubhouse. "Me and a few of the coaches have been here all that time, too, but those are the guys who have taken the most heat, so they're the first guys I thought of when that last ball came down."

The last ball came down in the glove of left fielder Jay Payton, sending the A's into the ALCS for the first time since 1992. Payton, who went to the World Series with the Mets in 2000, also was thrilled with helping Zito and Chavez move on -- but he was even happier that the A's won't have to answer any more questions about their recently dubious postseason past.

"This is just one step. One big step, but still just a step," Payton said. "But yeah, it'll be nice to start talking about something other than what's happened here before. It was getting ridiculous; I think I yelled at a couple people yesterday for asking the same questions over and over. Now that's over.

"Now we have a fresh slate, new things to talk about -- positive things."

Things like Chavez's breakout day. He entered the game 0-for-8 in the series and stuck in a 1-for-30 postseason slump dating to the start of the 2003 ALDS, but he went 2-for-2 with a mammoth solo homer, a double and two walks Friday.

He also helped Haren get out of a first-inning jam by smothering a smash off the bat of Michael Cuddyer and firing a strike to second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez to start a 5-4-3 double play.

"Huge, huge play," said Haren, who gave up two runs on nine hits over six innings. "That ball was crushed, and Chavvy just handled it. I was a little amped up early, and that definitely calmed me down."

As did what Chavez accomplished an inning later, opening the scoring with a towering homer into the right-field pavilion off Twins starter Brad Radke with one out in the bottom of the second. Payton followed with a single up the middle, and with two out Scutaro, who also had an RBI double in each of the first two games of the series, doubled into the right-center gap to make it 2-0.

"[It was] so fitting that Chavvy would be the guy to get us going," Zito said. "So perfect."

It was fitting, too, that Scutaro came up every bit as big as Chavez. Before the game, infield coach Ron Washington called him the team's "unsung hero."

After the game, which was turned into a rout when Scutaro's second double of the game un-juiced the bases in the seventh to give the A's an 8-2 lead, the man for whom Scutaro is filling in, injured shortstop Bobby Crosby, called Scutaro the series' MVP.

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Told there is no official MVP named for division series, Crosby laughed.

"Typical," he said. "Scoot's still the best-kept secret in baseball. Maybe that's good."

Right fielder Milton Bradley will never be accused of flying under the radar. His reputation as a rabble-rouser is every bit as prodigious as his five-tool talent, and two of those tools commanded center stage in the clincher.

"I'm not worried about what other people think of me," Bradley said as goggle-sporting teammates Bobby Kielty and Joe Kennedy conspired to douse him from behind. "I know what the people in here think of me, and they love me to death."

Bradley smoked a two-run homer to dead center in the third inning to give Haren a 4-0 lead, and when the Twins threatened to trim Oakland's lead to 4-3 in the sixth, Bradley came through again.

After scooping up Rondell White's RBI single to right with one out, Bradley fired a strike to catcher Jason Kendall to gun down Torii Hunter, who had doubled to put runners at second and third for White, in a close play at the plate.

"I don't think I got him," Kendall said with a smile befitting an 11-year veteran who finds himself a step away from the World Series in his first trip to the playoffs. "But I don't know if Torii touched the plate, either. And honestly, who cares? We got the call, and here we are.

"We deserve this. All of us."

Righty Justin Duchscherer, who pitched two perfect innings in Game 2, took over for Haren and was perfect in the top of the seventh, and the A's broke the game open with a rally in the bottom of the frame that Swisher said served as a snapshot of the season.

With two out and nobody on base, Twins lefty Dennys Reyes intentionally walked designated hitter Frank Thomas before walking Chavez. Righty Jesse Crain came on and got Payton to hit a bouncer behind first base, but Justin Morneau booted it, loading the bases.

After Swisher made it 5-3 with another walk, Scutaro sent the announced crowd of 35,694 into a frenzy with a line drive into the right-field corner, giving him a career-high-tying four RBIs. He went 4-for-12 in the series, all of his hits doubles.

"Three walks and a three-run, opposite-field rocket by a guy who was on the bench a couple months ago," marveled Swisher, who was such a constant target of celebratory spray that his long black hair made him look like a black lab after a bubble bath. "If that ain't a team effort, I don't know what is. And that's what this whole thing, this whole year, has been about."

Added Bradley: "All year, with all our injures and drama, guys stepped up for each other. And this was more of the same."

Minutes later, Bradley joined Swisher in a version of their post-homer dance as Beyonce's "Déjà Vu" blared from the clubhouse.

Déjà vu? Not for these A's, and certainly not for Zito and Chavez.

"That's part of what makes this so great," said center fielder Mark Kotsay. "We all knew what Eric and Barry have been through here, and to be on the team that helped them get to that next stage, it's a pretty awesome feeling."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.