- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

OAKLAND, Calif. — Barry Zito did his best to avoid the party, fearing a flying bottle might accidentally cost him a start on his biggest stage yet: the American League Championship Series.

“I don’t want to get hurt celebrating,” said the soaked left-hander, who has never missed a start.

The Oakland Athletics swept away years of first-round futility, then partied hard enough to make up for all those missed chances and then some.

Milton Bradley homered and threw out Torii Hunter in a disputed play at the plate as the Athletics snapped a stretch of nine straight losses in potential playoff clinchers, beating Minnesota 8-3 yesterday to reach the ALCS for the first time in 14 years.

The Athletics never trailed in finishing off the Twins in three games and will face either the Detroit Tigers or New York Yankees starting Tuesday night.

Marco Scutaro doubled twice and tied an Athletics postseason record with four RBI and Eric Chavez homered as the Athletics won a playoff series for the first time since 1990.

“Unbelievable,” Chavez said. “It’s been a while. We’ve had a lot of chances at it, and we’ve finally been able to do it.”

Dan Haren escaped two early jams to win in his first postseason start and the A’s avoided all of the gaffes that led to their previous postseason flops.

And when closer Huston Street got Luis Castillo to fly out to end it, the A’s rushed onto the field for a big group hug.

Minnesota, meanwhile, again had problems. Even the usually reliable Hunter, a five-time Gold Glove winner, ran into trouble.

“Oakland played mistake-free baseball,” Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer said. “We usually don’t make those mistakes.”

After his ill-advised dive led to Mark Kotsay’s tiebreaking, inside-the-park homer in Game 2, Hunter was thrown out in a key sixth-inning play yesterday.

Down 4-1, the Twins were rallying when Rondell White hit an RBI single. The speedy Hunter also tried to score on the play and Bradley made a strong throw home. Hunter attempted to avoid catcher Jason Kendall’s tag and reach the plate with his left hand, but plate umpire Mike Everitt called him out.

Hunter and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire argued to no avail, leaving the Twins trailing 4-2. Hunter said afterward that Kendall never tagged him.

“It was tough to swallow watching those guys celebrate,” Hunter said. “We got outplayed. Simple as that. When I saw them jumping up and down, it was tough but they deserved it. They outplayed us. I hate it. We hate it. It stunk.”

Through all his injuries this year, Bradley kept trusting his arm.

“It’s never let me down,” he said. “It has stayed strong and it came through for me today.”

Hunter and Justin Morneau homered for the Twins, who surprisingly won the AL Central on the season’s final day but couldn’t stage the kind of first-round comeback they pulled off against the Athletics four years ago — when Brad Radke won the opener and then outpitched Mark Mulder in Game 5.

“This isn’t what we came here to do,” Morneau said. “It’s tough. We didn’t play the way we played all year. They outplayed us and that’s why they’re moving on. In a short series, you can’t afford to miss those chances.”

Oakland took a surprising 2-0 lead in this series by beating Johan Santana and Boof Bonser in the menacing Metrodome, then scored first again against a reeling Radke in what was likely the retiring right-hander’s final career outing.

The Athletics failed twice to clinch the AL West in their home ballpark, but this time got to enjoy a postgame party in their own clubhouse — which had been alcohol-free since June after pitcher Esteban Loaiza’s drunken driving arrest.

“This is special for me,” fourth-year A’s manager Ken Macha said. “Not many guys get in this position.”

Chavez, who played through a variety of injuries this season that affected his swing, had been 1-for-30 in his last two postseasons before connecting off Radke in the second for his first hit of the series. Jay Payton followed with a single and Scutaro doubled him home two batters later.

“I’ve always been a streaky hitter over my career,” Chavez said.

The Athletics added four more runs in the seventh, three on another double by Scutaro.

Bradley, inconsistent and injured for much of his first season in Oakland, hit a two-run homer in the third for his first hit of the series and a 4-0 lead. He was quickly greeted by hitting coach Gerald Perry. The two exchanged words during Game 2 after Bradley tossed his batting gloves onto a dugout shelf and accidentally spilled coffee on Loaiza.

Oakland returned home only five days after the NFL’s Oakland Raiders played their last game in the Coliseum, leaving large brown spots in the outfield along with visible yard lines.

Yet that didn’t make a difference, and a sellout crowd waved white rally towels — these fans’ version of the Metrodome’s white Homer Hankies.

The Athletics kept on the tarps that have covered the stadium’s upper deck all season, reducing the capacity to 35,077 that included 1,000 standing-room only tickets. The philosophy: smaller venue, increased demand.

The demand will surely be there now.

Chavez and Zito, the Game 1 winner, are the only players to have experienced all the division series disappointment this decade — and Chavez acknowledged the Athletics would have to win this time to avoid future questions about all the failures.

“We’ve experienced this a few too many times here,” said Zito, expected to leave as a free agent after this season. “It’s good to get over that hump.”

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