The A’s Were Just Studly

fbfThere’s a big difference between the A’s trio and other talented young pitchers, such as Ryan Dempster, A.J. Burnett and Brad Penny of the Marlins. Oakland’s triumvirate was put through some daunting challenges as the A’s won the A.L. West last season. Sometimes they were successful; sometimes they failed. But the heat of those battles has forged a set of pitchers as mentally tough as it is talented.

“You go through things and you just kind of go through them,” Mulder says. “You don’t even realize as it happens that it is important or that you are growing up a little. You realize it later, that there were all kinds of moments like that, and you’re like, `Hey, what’d I just do?'”

Take a closer look at those moments from last season, and you can see a nucleus of pitchers that has grown into the foundation for what could be the A.L.’s best starting rotation outside the Bronx. The three, who are joined in the rotation by Gil Heredia and Omar Olivares, have always had talent. They have added guts.

“It’s one thing to see them throw 95 miles per hour,” Howe says. “But these guys have something inside, too. Call it intestinal fortitude.”

July 22, 2000 Network Associates Coliseum

Zito’s moment came during his first big-league start, against the Angels. The A’s had held off on calling him up because the team spent most of the first two weeks of July on the road and felt it would be better for Zito to debut at home. But while they waited, the A’s lost seven of 10 games, putting the team five games behind the Mariners and a game behind the Angels. Some circumstances for a debut.

His first four innings were shaky. Zito walked four and hit a batter but managed to get to the fifth inning with a 7-1 lead. Then he nearly had a meltdown. Zito loaded the bases in the fifth on two walks and a single. There were no outs, and the Angels had the middle of their order–Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson–coming up.

“That inning, I was trying not to blow it,” Zito says. “You can’t pitch that way. I had to remind myself of that.”

Zito struck out Vaughn with a looping curveball. He buzzed a high fastball past Salmon for strike three. He got Anderson to chase a curve in the dirt, the third strikeout of the inning.

“You expect to score in that situation,” Vaughn said after the game. “That kid has good stuff, and he showed a lot of poise out there.”

Zito describes his repertoire of pitches as “typical lefty stuff”–a high-80s fastball that rides in on righthanders, a changeup that tails away and a curve that Vaughn calls, “one of the best I have seen.” But he is less concerned about his stuff than about his poise and the ways he can use his mind to gain poise. Zito is a disciple of psychologist Harvey Dorfman, author of The Mental ABCs of Pitching and The Mental Game of Baseball. He is also a dabbler in Taoism. He conducts breathing and visualization exercises before he pitches and uses aromatherapy candles on the road to soften the atmosphere in hotel rooms.

“You have to create a scenario in your head where you know these guys are not going to hit you,” Zito says. “The thing is, you really have to believe it, and I was not believing it. But all right, they load the bases. Now I am saying to myself, `Dude, f— these hitters. I am going to dominate these guys.'”

When Vaughn stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out, Zito did not see a 268-pound former MVP but just another hitter, not much different from the minor league hacks he had been facing just a week earlier.

That fifth-inning revelation in his debut spurred Zito to a 7-4 record and 2.72 ERA.

“They’re just hitters, no matter where you are,” Zito says. “It’s the same game, just a different deal.”

This season could be a different deal as well. Zito is no longer a rookie. Opponents will be better prepared for him, as they were for Hudson in the early part of last season, his second year in the big leagues. But Zito doesn’t accept that sort of thinking.

“If you are going to talk about a sophomore slump, why not a junior slump? Or senior slump? People say the hitters know me now, but as much as they know me, I know them, too. So who has the advantage?”

September 13, 2000 A’s training room

Mark Mulder was lifting weights, just finishing his final set of squats, with 365 pounds on the bar. He had squatted 400 pounds a week earlier, so 365 was nothing unusual. On his final rep, he bent at the knees, the weight digging into his shoulders, but when he tried to come up again … nothing. Only pain.

Stuck in a squat, in too much shock to scream, Mulder hitched the barbell to the safety bar and rolled to the floor for what seemed like 10 minutes but was more like 10 seconds. A’s third baseman Eric Chavez entered the training room, saw the 6-6 Mulder sprawled on his stomach under the squat machine and laughed.

“What are you doing, man?” Chavez said.

Mulder couldn’t speak. “To be honest, it felt like someone shot me right above the ass,” he recalls now. In more technical terms, Mulder suffered a herniated disk in his back, and it could not have come at a worse time. He had been the A’s gem prospect, a lefty drafted out of Michigan State with the second overall pick in 1998 and given a club-record $3.2 million signing bonus. He had zipped through the minors, making only 24 starts, all at Class AAA, before reaching the majors in April. After a decent start (5-2, 4.94 ERA), Mulder had gone into a 2-8 tailspin, putting his hold on a rotation spot in doubt. But he had begun to turn things around, going 2-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three September starts. He had been scheduled for three more starts before season’s end. The worst physical problem he had dealt with was pitching through mononucleosis while a senior at Thornwood High in Chicago.

“I had finally gotten on a little bit of a roll,” Mulder says. “I was looking forward to those last three starts. But it was a freak thing. I mean, I had never gotten hurt. When I think about it now, I don’t know. It might not be that bad.”

In the beginning, it was bad. The injury came the day before the/X/s went on an 11-day road trip, so Mulder was left in California to meet with doctors and get started on therapy. It was a lonely time. He watched the A’s on television in his apartment, alternating between sitting and pacing–he could do neither for long because of the pain. Almost two weeks later, team doctors confirmed what the pain had been telling Mulder all along: He was done for the season, including the playoffs. However, the break from the team gave Mulder time to think.

The injury, indeed, was not that bad, but he had finished his rookie year with a 9-10 record and a 5.44 ERA. Mulder knew he could do better, so he would spend the winter working out, getting stronger.

“If you look at where Mark (was) evaluated last season and where he thought he should be, they were very far apart,” says A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson. “Not being able to pitch in the playoffs only added to it.”

“Sitting, watching the playoffs, that made a light bulb flash over my head,” Mulder says. “I want us to get back (to the playoffs), and I want to be one of the guys who is the reason we are there. Right now, I feel great I feel stronger than I have ever been.”

October 6, 2000, Game 3 A.L. Division Series, Yankee Stadium

There was little Tim Hudson had not done coming into this game. He had whipped through the minors with a 24-10 record. He had gone 11-2 as a rookie in 1999. He had pitched in the 2000 All-Star Game and was one of four pitchers to win 20 games for the year.

Hudson, a 160-pound package of stiff-lipped intensity, had taken over the duties of staff ace, going 7-0 during the team’s stretch run. He had beaten Seattle in a pivotal road game September 21, lifting the A’s to three straight wins over the division-leading Mariners. He had thrown eight shutout innings in the season finale to clinch Oakland’s A.L. West championship. Now, after the A’s had split the first two games of the opening playoff round in Oakland against the Yankees, Hudson was starting Game 3.

“You don’t want to get too far ahead, where you expect things from a guy,” Fasano, the catcher, says. “But I think by the end of last year, we expected him to win.”

With Oakland leading, 1-0, and runners on first and third with no outs in the second inning, Hudson got Glenallen Hill to hit a hard chopper in front of the plate. Bernie Williams, on third, raced home. Hudson went to field the ball but saw Williams and thought, “I can get him.”

He laughs at that recollection. “I pretty much had no chance at him,” he says now. “But I guess I am stubborn.”

Hudson threw to catcher Ramon Hernandez and, as he says, was not even close–Hernandez did not attempt a tag on Williams. Now the Yankees had two on and nobody out. Hudson gave up a walk and an infield hit, helping the Yankees to a 2-1 lead with momentum: New York wound up with a 4-2 win and eventually won the series. Hudson wound up with a valuable lesson.

“You can’t do too much,” he says. “I actually thought I pitched pretty well. I just made a bad decision. It was a mistake. You hope you learn from mistakes.”

Hudson has learned enough to be the A’s opening day starter and staff ace. Of course, being an opening day starter for the A’s in recent years is not much of an accomplishment–they have frequently been chosen by default. This is the ninth consecutive season Oakland has used a different opening day pitcher, and in that group are such forgettables as Carlos Reyes, Bobby Witt and, yes, Ariel Prieto. But Hudson is different. He will pitch opening day because he is a true ace, the best of a good group. And, at 25, he could hold on to the job for awhile.

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