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Thursday, November 7
 
At what cost the Cy Young?

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

It was perhaps that last start, the one on the final day of the regular season in Texas, that gave Barry Zito the Cy Young heft his campaign ultimately required. It was Zito's 23rd victory, an exclamation point on a season of excellence unsurpassed by a left-hander in the American League in nearly 15 years.

Barry Zito
Barry Zito's knee-buckling curveball made him this year's AL Cy Young winner, but he didn't get to use it much in the playoffs.

And interesting, isn't it, that it may also have led to a short chain of toxic spills.

If victory No. 23 for Zito on Sept. 29 was the Cy Young clincher, it came at what proved out to be a hideously disproportionate cost. It was the start that guaranteed Zito but a single appearance in Oakland's first-round playoff series against Minnesota -- and let's follow the rapidly unraveling ball from there:

  • What that meant was that A's manager Art Howe would be setting up his rotation for Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, not Zito, to pitch twice against the Twins;

  • Hudson would go on to inexplicably stink on ice twice;

  • Twins win; and

  • Hello, New York! Meet your new Mets skipper, Art Howe. Heck, Oakland GM Billy Beane practically volunteered to book Howe's safe passage to Flushing himself.

    It's a slightly shaky chain of events, granted; but it's there. Whatever the motivation for the rotation of his vaunted Big Three pitchers, Howe unexpectedly sealed both his and the A's fates on that last day of regular-season play at The Ballpark in Arlington.

    Zito's season was unassailable on almost every level. That 23rd victory gave him the most by a lefty pitcher in the AL since Frankie "Sweet Music" Viola won 24 games for Minnesota in 1988. His .821 winning percentage (23-5) broke the Oakland franchise record. He was nearly untouchable from May through July, going 14-1 in that stretch.

    He was, this is to say, a perfectly acceptable Cy Young finalist -- and he would have been so whether or not he worked that final meaningless game against the Rangers, a start Zito made three days after the A's had clinched the AL West and relegated eventual World Series champion Anaheim to wild-card status.

    Howe never explicitly said he gave Zito the last-day pitching assignment to boost his Cy stats, though after watching Zito yield one run in six innings of an 8-7 Oakland victory that day, the manager observed, "He has done that all season long -- certainly a Cy Young-type season."

    So that's one theory, a good-guy manager trying to get his player an award he felt was deserved. Another holds that Howe felt confident enough in beating the Twins that he already was looking ahead to setting his three-man rotation for an expected ALCS against the Yankees, putting Zito in position to pitch Games 1, 4 and 7.

    Again, no worthwhile corroboration on any front from the Oakland decision-makers. But what is undeniably true -- and this holds regardless of how the thing played out -- is that, however contrary it sounds, Art Howe actually did send his hottest pitcher to the mound twice in the playoffs. The man got burned, was all.

    It was Tim Hudson, not Zito or Mulder, who finished the season on the most elevated plateau. Whatever you make of the righty-lefty debates and the fact of Zito's Cy Young-caliber work, Hudson was Oakland's best pitcher down the stretch. He won his last eight decisions. He posted otherworldly ERAs of 1.80 in August and 1.69 in September. (Zito was 2.16 in August, 2.33 in September.)

    Hudson also was 5-0 lifetime against the Twins, with a 1.76 ERA. Zito was 1-2, 5.97. If Howe was giving Zito a Cy boost by pitching him on Sept. 29, it was a purely calculated risk. The manager couldn't possibly have foreseen that Hudson would blow a 5-1 lead in Game 1 and then fall apart completely after Miguel Tejada's throwing error in Game 4.

    He couldn't have foreseen it, but there it is. The bottom line, for an enraged Beane and a dispirited Oakland fan base, was that the A's took their 103 regular-season wins and flushed them in the span of five games against the scrapping, undaunted Twins -- five games in which their Cy Young pitcher appeared one time.

    Seemingly an eyeblink later, Art Howe was moving on to the Mets and a clearly-not-devastated-by-the-news Beane was looking to press his franchise forward under former bench coach Ken Macha. The A's had completed the Howe era with some of the best seasons in their history -- and a couple of their most bitter finishes.

    Oddly enough, that would include the fall of 2002, the year Barry Zito put his Cy Young bona fides on display in Texas on the last day of the regular season. It was, for the A's, their last glance at postseason hardware of any kind.

    Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com







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