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Handing out A -- for advantage

Red Sox might favor matchup vs. Oakland

BALTIMORE -- It's a no-brainer, a Red Sox pitcher suggested when he was asked which team he would rather face in the postseason.

"Are you kidding?" he said, as if the answer were emblazoned in neon on his forehead.

Let's see, the possibilities for the Division Series have all but narrowed to the Twins, Angels, and A's.

"Oakland," he said. "Any time you go 8-1 against a team, you have to feel like you have an advantage."

Of course, no one in a Sox uniform wants his name attached to comments that could wind up tacked to a wall in the A's clubhouse as a motivational message. But even the A's might concede the Sox would be crazy if they favored playing anyone in the postseason but them.

The Sox hit better against the A's this season than they did against any other team in the American League, batting .331 with a .417 on-base percentage and outscoring Oakland, 76-40. Despite their vaunted starters, the A's logged an 8.00 ERA against the Sox, their worst against AL opponents.

What's more, Sox manager Terry Francona knows the A's nearly as well as he knows the Sox since he served as bench coach last season for Oakland manager Ken Macha. Asked if his experience with the A's might give the Sox an edge in the postseason, Francona said, "I hope so. It comes down to you've got to play well, but it can't hurt."

The problem is, the A's went from leading the Angels by three games in the AL West Sept. 1 to ending last night in a dead heat, thanks to going 12-16 in September while the Halos went 18-11. Oakland's pitching staff posted a 5.10 ERA in the month, their worst since they rolled up a 5.69 in May 2002. In the process, one of the aces, Mark Mulder, turned in a month like Pedro Martinez's, plummeting out of contention for the Cy Young Award by going 0-3 with an 8.10 ERA in five starts.

"I can't tell if he's hurt," Francona said. "But I know his velocity is down. I watched his last start and he threw some balls over the middle of the plate. He has not been vintage Mulder."

The race in the West could go down to the final day of the season Sunday since the A's and Angels open a three-game showdown for the division title tonight in Oakland. While the Sox tune up with a four-game weekend series against the Orioles to end the regular season, chances are good they privately will be rooting for the A's.

The Sox may fear no team, but they would prefer the A's to the Angels. The Halos won four of six games this season against the Sox in Anaheim, where the Division Series would open Tuesday if the teams matched up. Even though the Sox swept their final three-game series against the Angels at Fenway Park Aug. 31-Sept. 2, Johnny Damon said afterward, "They're the best team we've seen all year."

Damon was far from alone among the Sox in his judgment. After all, the Angels outscored the mighty Sox offense, 54-53, in the nine games thanks largely to Vladimir Guerrero, the MVP candidate who homered twice yesterday to finish September with a league-leading 10 homers in the month, and 38 this season. The Angels also have a nasty bullpen and a running game that gives the Sox fits, even if their core of starters is no match for Boston's.

Francona's Game 1 starter, Curt Schilling, who also would pitch Game 5 if necessary, dominated the Angels this season, going 2-0 in his two starts with a 2.30 ERA. Martinez, who is scheduled to start Game 2, went 1-0 in two starts against Anaheim with a 7.36 ERA. And Bronson Arroyo, who appears poised to start Game 3, went 0-1 in two starts with a 9.72 ERA.

Since the A's and Angels start their final game Sunday at 4:05 p.m., the Sox may need to linger in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards to wait for things to shake out in Oakland before they know where to head for the Division Series. The Sox start their game against the Orioles at 1:35 p.m.

Yet the outcome in the West would mean little immediately to the Sox if the Twins ended the season with a better record than the A's and Angels. The Sox must settle for the wild card after the Yankees clinched the East last night by beating the Twins, 6-4. The Sox will open the playoffs against the division winner other than the Bronx Bombers with the best record, making the Twins a distinct possibility. The Twins are 90-69, sporting the same record as the A's and Angels.

While the California teams throw everything they have at each other this weekend trying to win their division, the Twins will gear up for the postseason with three games against the Indians in Minnesota. The Twins, who have clinched the AL Central, were so committed to preparing for the playoffs Wednesday that they pulled their ace, Johan Santana, after five innings with a 3-1 lead over the Yankees, only to lose, 5-3. So it remains to be seen how aggressively Minnesota will compete this weekend, leaving the postseason as murky as ever for the Sox.

But there's nothing murky about the Sox preferring to play the A's rather than the Twins. No team wants to face Santana, the hottest pitcher in baseball, twice in a best-of-five series. Only a scandal would prevent Santana from winning the Cy Young Award after he has gone 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA.

Even more frightening for prospective playoff foes, Santana has gone 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA since the All-Star break while holding batters to a .154 average. His run has been as dominant as any lefthander's in recent generations. Just ask the Sox, who went 2 for 25 with 12 strikeouts against him over eight innings in a 4-3 loss Aug. 1 at the Metrodome. Their only hits were home runs by Orlando Cabrera and Manny Ramirez.

Santana happened to outpitch Martinez for the victory.

"He reminds me so much of me when I was younger," Martinez said. "And his stuff is a little bit better than mine."

Aggravating the Santana Factor, the Sox have not won a series in Minnesota the last four years, going 4-8 at the Metrodome. In fact, in franchise history, the Sox have fared worse in Minnesota (110-156 for a .414 winning percentage) than anywhere on the road but the Bronx (388-568, .406).

Consequently, the A's are looking better all the time as a preferred first-round foe, though Damon noted he expects the Sox to play well against any opponent.

"I think we're going to be ready regardless of who we face, even Johan Santana," Damon said. "He's due to give up a couple runs."

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