- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

OAKLAND, Calif. — Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane always will be linked to “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’ book about his style of selecting talent.

After what happened this season in Oakland, perhaps “Miracleball” would have been more appropriate. What else can it be called other than a miracle when a player like former Washington Nationals pitcher Esteban Loaiza — tonight’s Game 2 starter for the A’s against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series — turns into the second coming of Catfish Hunter?

That might seem a stretch, but the managers of both sides sang his praises yesterday before Game 1.

“I was talking to Don Cooper, the pitching coach of the White Sox, [earlier this year] while Esteban was out [with a shoulder injury and] throwing a simulated game one day in Chicago, and Cooper told me that this guy really likes to compete,” A’s manager Ken Macha said about Loaiza, whose best season was with the White Sox. “Those are the kind of guys you want on your side.”

Said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, who managed Loaiza in Pittsburgh when he first made it to the majors: “He’s a very smart guy, a very confident guy and he’s a very tough guy. He was a nice young man, and now he’s a nice older man.”

Somehow, each manager made it through his statement with a straight face.

Clearly, neither was talking about the Esteban Loaiza in the Nationals clubhouse last year. That player was considered a self-absorbed, negative influence with a work ethic that never came close either to work or ethic. And before his season in Washington, that player was described by a former teammate as “the worst teammate I’ve ever played with.”

Yet here Loaiza is, being touted as a tough, smart competitor. That is “Miracleball.”

When Beane signed the 34-year-old Loaiza during the offseason to a three-year, $21 million contract, it seemed perhaps he finally had let his ego get in the way of his decision making. Giving that amount of money and security to a player known to be difficult appeared to be foolish. And Loaiza set out to prove that notion right early on, going 0-3 with an 8.35 ERA in four starts in April, finding himself on the disabled list in May and getting arrested and charged with drunken driving in June.

Instead of continuing to self-destruct when he came back, however, Loaiza began pitching as if he were in a contract year again. He ran up an 11-6 record the rest of the season, including a 4-0 mark and a 1.48 ERA in August that landed him American League pitcher of the month honors.

And then, in a potentially divisive incident in the A’s dugout during the division series when Milton Bradley and hitting coach Gerald Perry got into it after Bradley spilled a cup of coffee on Loaiza, it was Loaiza who was the voice of reason.

“It was an accident,” Loaiza said. “He threw the batting gloves up there, and the coffee landed on me. That’s just baseball. You never know what will happen on the field or in the dugout. It didn’t bother me. I got another uniform and went back to work.”

Partly as a result of his transformation, Loaiza was selected for tonight’s start over Rich Harden.

“It’s the coaching staff and the manager’s decision who starts, who doesn’t, who is in the bullpen and who’s not,” Loaiza said. “I’ve just got to be ready for anything that happens. I’ve been in situations like this in the past, and I want to win.”

His situation last year in Washington was different. He began as a discard signed to a one-year, $3 million contract and made the most of the opportunity, finishing 12-10 with a 3.77 ERA in 34 starts. So, of course, he is fond of the Nationals. They made him a lot of money.

“My experience there was really good, especially with a lot more Latin players and being the first year for baseball there, trying to make the playoffs,” Loaiza said. “I had a good experience with [Frank] Robinson, with some of the coaches there and some of the players. It got me here to a three-year deal.”

It’s easy to explain his season in Washington last year. He was playing for a contract. But what about this year?

“I’ve been around some fierce competitors, and those guys are the guys that step forward when everything is on the line,” Macha said. “That’s the kind of guy you want out there.”

Miraculously, in Oakland, that guy is Esteban Loaiza.

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