- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2001

NEW YORK They were the undisputed team of the century, winners of 26 World Series titles, including three in a row. And if that wasn't enough, they actually have the audacity to claim they've improved since last season.
So why does everyone think the mighty New York Yankees have finally met their match in the Oakland Athletics?
"I mentioned yesterday that this is probably the best team we've played in the first round, and somebody suggested it's maybe the best team we've ever played in the postseason," Yankees manager Joe Torre said on the eve of his squad's American League division series showdown with the A's. "That's no question a possibility. They are impressive. They were very good last year, and they're better this year. And we held on by our teeth last year."
Torre's Yankees have faced plenty of challenges during his six-year term at the helm of baseball's model franchise. But they've never faced anything as daunting as a first-round matchup with an Oakland team that won 102 games in 2001 and still finished 14 games behind the Seattle Mariners for the AL West crown.
It's not that New York isn't loaded with talent few teams would pass up a starting rotation of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Orlando Hernandez, a lineup that includes Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill and a closer the likes of Mariano Rivera.
Oakland's deck, though, might be stacked a little higher.
The A's will counter the Yankees with a young pitching staff every bit as talented as the defending champs: Mark Mulder (who starts Game 1 tonight against Clemens), Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Cory Lidle. They've got last year's AL MVP and the favorite to win the honor again in first baseman Jason Giambi. And perhaps more than anything, they've got confidence after taking New York to a deciding fifth game in last year's first round.
"We came very close to knocking off the Yankees last year, probably the closest of any teams that played them in the postseason," Oakland manager Art Howe said. "We were very close to doing it, and we feel we are a better team this year than we were a year ago. Hopefully, the experience factor is going to be the difference."
The Athletics' road to the postseason was anything but conventional. The consensus AL West favorite this spring after its surprise division title in 2000, Oakland got off to an unimpressive 8-18 start that was made all the more disastrous by Seattle's record-setting pace.
But in the era of the wild card, the A's knew they still had a chance to make a postseason run, no matter how many games the Mariners won. One game over the .500-mark at the All-Star break, Oakland went on to win 58 of its last 75 games, the best second-half record in major league history.
"It's very gratifying this year after the start we had," said Mulder, the AL's leader with 21 wins this season. "Everybody started saying we were a bust, but we kept at it and we fought through it. And look at what we've done now."
The A's boast four lineup regulars with at least 25 homers and 100 RBI (Giambi, Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada and Jermaine Dye). They've got four starting pitchers with at least 13 wins and ERAs under 3.60. And they've got memories of last year's division series, including a Game 5 loss at home, fresh on their minds.
"I don't think guys quite knew what to expect [last year]," Mulder said. "Maybe we tried too much. But I don't think we are going to do that this year. We are going to have fun with this and go from there."
The Yankees, meanwhile, are perhaps in their most tenuous position since returning to the top in 1996. Pitchers Hernandez, Rivera and Ramiro Mendoza have been battling nagging injuries, as have outfielders O'Neill and Chuck Knoblauch. None are serious enough to keep them from playing, though O'Neill will be restricted to designated hitter duties throughout this series.
Still, these are the Yankees, a team that inevitably seems to rise to the occasion each time it is presented with a challenge. The challenge this time around is a fourth-straight World Series title, something that hasn't been done since a certain team from the Bronx won five in a row in the 1950s.
"We've won three in a row, and I think if we were going to get bored we would have done it by now," Torre said. "If we don't win this series, hopefully it's the fact that they beat us and we didn't lay down."

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