ALCS-bound A's put playoff failures in the past

OAKLAND, Calif. -- This time, there were no "Derek Jeter Backhand Flips to Home Plate While Carrying Lois Lane Off to the Hotel Suite of Solitude."

No "Eric Byrnes Forgetting to Touch Home Plate." No "Miguel Tejada Colliding With the Third Baseman and Getting Thrown Out at Home." No "Jermaine Dye Breaking His Shin on a Foul Ball."

This time, the Athletics played as well for the entire division series as they did for most of the season, never trailing in a three-game sweep over the Twins to advance to the American League Championship Series. And so this time, there were also no post-series questions about what the hell went wrong out there and how these guys just don't know how to get over the hump and why "Moneyball" doesn't work in the postseason.

"I know it makes for a good story, and it's a story worth writing about," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said after his team beat Minnesota 8-3 in Game 3. "But I'm happy these guys don't have to answer those questions anymore. I think these guys are more tired of it than I am."

The A's have been the best team you can field on a shoestring budget since 2000, winning the AL West four times and making the playoffs as the wild card once. But until this year, they always faltered in the first round despite having nine opportunities to clinch those series. They squandered 2-0 series leads in 2001 and 2003, plus a 2-1 lead in 2002. Those teams were built around the pitching of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, but a five-game series doesn't leave much margin for error and something always went wrong when it mattered most in October.

Oakland hadn't won a postseason series since 1990, and it got to be so frustrating -- "Why, oh why, didn't Jeremy Giambi slide?" -- that if the A's had played in Boston, someone probably would have written a book about the Curse of Jose Canseco.

Mulder and Hudson are gone, as are most of the other players from the 2000-03 teams (free agents tend to move when your revenue stream includes trips to the plasma center). But despite those departures, Oakland is finally advancing this autumn.

"In other years," veteran third baseman Eric Chavez said, "it's been the Big Three, or it's been Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada. But this is the one year I think you could say this is Oakland A's baseball that participated, and I think with the defense and relief pitching, that really sets us apart from other years.

"You know, talent-wise, this is one of the least-talented teams I have ever been on and participated in the playoffs, but it's a bunch of hard-nosed baseball players who really love to play the game of baseball and it's really showed," Chavez said.

That's probably not a slogan you'll see printed up on many T-shirts: "The Least-Talented Division Champs in History!" But Chavez might be right. Oakland had by far the worst run differential of the AL postseason teams and was under .500 as late as June 9. But the A's have played extremely well since then, and this just might be the best fielding team they have had.

Chavez is a Gold Glove third baseman, and he showed why this series, swallowing up tough short hops as if there was nothing to it. He scooped up Michael Cuddyer's smash in the first inning and turned it into an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play that saved a run.

"You get so used to seeing him do that that you begin to take it for granted," Beane said. "He's the best I've seen and I've been in the game 26 years. And I saw a lot of ball growing up, too. I saw highlights of Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles, and Chavy is the best I've ever seen. Well, maybe I should say that I can't imagine anyone being better.

"He's unreal. He's a game-changer at third," he said.

He was also a game-changer at the plate for the first time in a while. Oakland's leader, Chavez struggled considerably in the 2003 series with Boston, going 1-for-21 with no RBI. He was hitless the first two games of this series, though it was less noticeable in the 3-2 and 5-2 victories. He broke out of the slump, however, with a long home run off Brad Radke in the second inning that gave Oakland and starter Dan Haren a 2-0 lead they never relinquished. He also doubled, walked twice and scored a run.

"Just looking at the next series, regardless of who we play, it's an uphill battle and we've got a long way to go, and there still is the thought of going home early the next round, so you've got to keep that in your mind. But it's definitely enjoyable."
-- A's third baseman Eric Chavez

"He had not really had a good September, and today he hits a home run, starts the scoring, gets a double, gets on base four times. Good for Eric," manager Ken Macha said. "I hope it has some carryover into the next series."

That's right. The A's may have celebrated as if they had just won the World Series or as if they were hanging out at Matt Leinart's on a Friday night -- there were tubs upon tubs of booze in the clubhouse and players dancing for more than an hour after the game. But they still have to beat the Yankees or Tigers to get to the World Series.

"I told the guys, 'Don't go out there and get hurt,'" designated hitter Frank Thomas said. "We still have a long way to go."

They are already banged up. Second baseman Mark Ellis broke his finger batting in the ninth inning of Game 2, and Oakland doesn't have any obvious replacements. The A's started D'Angelo Jimenez in his place in Game 3, and Beane said they are auditioning backup middle infielders in their fall-league camp. Those candidates include minor-leaguers Mark Kiger and Kevin Melillo and whoever else Oakland can find.

"Maybe Mike Andrews," Beane joked.

He could afford to laugh. After all the previous near-misses, however, the A's will gladly take this situation.

"It's kind of a weird feeling," said Chavez, when asked whether this series was as enjoyable as the previous ones had been frustrating. "Like I said, when there is a five-game series, it's a crapshoot. We've had good teams here before, but it's a weird feeling.

"Just looking at the next series, regardless of who we play, it's an uphill battle and we've got a long way to go, and there still is the thought of going home early the next round, so you've got to keep that in your mind. But it's definitely enjoyable," Chavez said.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach Jim at jimcaple.com