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ON BASEBALL

Give A's an F in finishing

The shadows cast by the past may be longer on Yawkey Way, but no matter how brightly the sun shines in California, the Oakland A's aren't free of their own burdens.

Like this one: The A's have had eight chances in the last four years to win just one more game and advance to the next round of the playoffs. Eight times they have lost, their latest failure coming yesterday afternoon in Fenway Park, when closer Keith Foulke could not hold a one-run lead six outs away from a trip to the American League Championship Series.

"How can we not be?" said A's first baseman and Sox alumnus Scott Hatteberg, when asked if the A's were aware of their record of almost-but-not-quites. "We're questioned about it all the time. There's history everywhere."

Even before the Red Sox came back to beat the A's, 5-4, on David Ortiz's two-run double off Foulke, Sox manager Grady Little suggested that history might wear more heavily on the A's than it will on the Sox.

"There's one team that will be dreading a plane ride back to Oakland today," Little said, "and one that will be looking forward to it."

The A's, who lost ace Tim Hudson after just one inning yesterday when he strained a muscle in the same hip that bothered him last October, are trying to take comfort in the fact that they will be going home, where they had the league's best record (57-24), to try to put away the Sox, even if it means facing a rested Pedro Martinez in Game 5.

"We've got the best lefthander in the league going tomorrow," said Hudson, alluding to Barry Zito, who already has beaten the Sox once in this series. "We're feeling pretty good about our chances. I'll take Barry Zito against Pedro Martinez any day."

But what is gnawing away at the A's is that they let a great chance to close this series out this weekend slip away, instead of having to rely on Zito, who will be pitching on three days' rest, one less than Martinez. Saturday night, it was terrible defense (four errors) and worse base running (two guys thrown out at the plate when they failed to finish plays). Yesterday, it was Hudson going down early, Foulke faltering late, and the bats bending but not breaking a hittable John Burkett, the Sox starter, who had the bases loaded, a run in, and no outs in the second, and got three straight popups.

Foulke led the American League with 43 saves this season -- he and Dennis Eckersley are the only A's pitchers to hold that distinction -- but his aura of invincibility comes out shrink-wrapped against the Sox. Back in August, Manny Ramirez shocked him with a game-tying, ninth-inning home run in a game the Sox won the next inning in Oakland. Yesterday, called upon to protect a 4-3 A's lead after Steve Sparks and Ricardo Rincon had filled the void left by Hudson, Foulke didn't have it.

He gave up a Wall double to Nomar Garciaparra, a single through the left side to Manny Ramirez, and then Ortiz's double over the head of A's right fielder Jermaine Dye. In an at-bat that went to a full count, Foulke never threw his fabled changeup to Ortiz, showing only fastballs to a guy who was 0 for 16 in the series and playing on a sore knee.

His frame of mind, already darkened by Ortiz's hit, didn't improve as he dressed with his back facing a circle of inquisitors.

"All right," he said, turning to face his unwelcome guests, "knock yourselves out."

Why no changeups to Ortiz?

"He's a guy who always seems to hit it," Foulke said.

Garciaparra, Foulke said, hit a cut fastball "off that thing out there," referring to the Wall.

He worked Ramirez carefully. "I didn't want to give him anything to drive," Foulke said, "but I left a cutter over the plate too much and he hooked it through the six hole."

His location was off on the payoff pitch to Ortiz. Asked where he'd hoped it would go, he said sarcastically, "I wanted it either in the catcher's or outfielder's glove, not against the right-field wall.

"I wanted it up more, but the ball was down a little bit."

This series, Hatteberg said wearily, has "felt like 10 games rather than four."

Oakland general manager Billy Beane wasn't inclined to listen to any history lessons yesterday.

"The great thing about the past is that every day is a new day," Beane said. "Every day is a new day. I thought our guys bounced back very well. This couldn't have been a more emotional game, to see [Hudson] not going out for the second inning, and our guys responded."

Zito vs. Martinez, with everything on the table?

"He'd be our choice," Beane said. "He'd be their choice. And we're playing in Oakland, our choice."

History?

"We knew," Hatteberg said, "that this wasn't going to be easy."

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