Twenty wins, 20 ways to win
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Along the way to the American League record for consecutive victories, the Oakland A's won 20 games in perhaps 20 different ways.
Different barely begins to describe No. 20.
Of course, Oakland's victory Wednesday night really does stand alone in baseball history, because it marked the first time an American League team had won 20 consecutive games. With a 12-11 victory over the Royals before a record crowd at Network Associates Coliseum of 55,528 fans, the A's passed the 1947 Yankees and the 1906 White Sox for the longest streak in AL history.
One more victory at Minnesota on Friday, and the A's would match the 1935 Chicago Cubs at 21 for the longest winning streak in baseball other than the 26-game streak by the 1916 Giants -- which, it should be noted, actually includes a tie.
Forgive the A's if they can't possibly fathom the history they made Wednesday night. They were still catching their collective breath from the wildest game of the year.
They were up by 11 runs, gave up 11 runs themselves and finally won with a walk-off homer by Scott Hatteberg in the bottom of the ninth.
"I know it was a record-breaker, but I don't want to watch this one on film too much," an exasperated A's manager Art Howe said afterward.
For the A's, this film began as a blockbuster with plenty of high-powered action, turned into a disaster film of epic proportions and then finished with one of those endings they fire people in Hollywood for writing because they're just too darned unbelievable.
How often do you see a team jump out to an 11-0 lead after three innings but end up getting caught with 11 unanswered runs? Who watching this game in the first three innings ever would have imagined the A's getting into a save situation? And once Billy Koch, the top reliever in the American League, blew the save, who would have foreseen the quick turnaround of a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth?
Well, actually, anybody who has been watching the A's recently might have figured out the last part.
Hatteberg became the hero of the day with a pinch-hit solo homer on a 1-0 fastball from Jason Grimsley. He sent the ball soaring into a delirious throng in the right-center field bleachers, and then took a jog around the bases into a delirious throng of teammates at home plate.
"How this all happened, who knows?" said Hatteberg, at 32 among the elder statesmen in the A's clubhouse. "It's been an awfully crazy ride. It's been very draining emotionally, definitely. But it's just been so much fun."
Fun, like one of those rides at the amusement parks that has a warning on it about people with heart conditions.
Wednesday's win marked the third in succession in which the A's won in their final at-bat, on the heels of Miguel Tejada's three-run homer to beat Minnesota on Sunday and Tejada's RBI single to beat these same Royals on Monday.
"The way we've won the last three games, regardless of the streak we're on, it just sends chills up your spine," said starter Tim Hudson, who was staked to an 11-0 lead but wound up getting a no-decision.
Said Howe: "I'm just glad we had an offday yesterday because if these games came back-to-back-to-back, they'd be carting me out of here."
In this one, the A's showed their very best, and their very worst, all in one not-so-neat package that just so happened to add up to a bizarre slice of history.
This win looked like it was in the bag before the record crowd had completely filed into the stadium. With leadoff man Ray Durham lighting the fuse with a triple, the A's knocked Royals ace Paul Byrd from the game with six runs in the first. Before the Royals had recorded nine outs, all nine men in the A's lineup had scored at least one run, with the top two men in the lineup -- Durham and John Mabry -- already having crossed the plate twice. It was 11-0 after three innings.
But the Royals put up five against Hudson in the fourth inning, although only two of those runs were earned because shortstop/MVP candidate Tejada booted a potential double-play ball. Meanwhile, the bats cooled considerably, and the Royals mounted another five-run inning in the eighth, moving to within a run on Mike Sweeney's three-run homer.
In came Koch for the ninth, and the Royals manufactured another run against him to tie the game. In the end, it was just the setup for the drama Hatteberg provided in the bottom of the ninth.
"I'd rather have my name next to the 'S' than next to the 'W,' " said Koch, who has nine saves and three victories in the streak and has pitched in Oakland's last five games. "I was really upset I let that one get away and got us in a hole. But it just seems like if we go into the bottom of the ninth down a run or tied, we're going to pull it out."
It happened again Wednesday night, which is starting to seem normal with these A's. That it took an 11-run lead turning into a tie game, that was the weird part.
But, then, to the A's this whole thing's pretty weird. Don't ask them to explain their record run. They can't.
"There aren't too many words to describe it," Koch said. "Awesome. Unbelievable. Wow. But I think I can put a sentence together to describe what we're going through."
Hudson gave it a shot, though.
"I feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone," Hudson said. "Everything's just kind of become a blur, especially with how dramatic it's all been."
Dribblers. . .: The record crowd surpassed the previous record for a regular-season crowd, which was 54,513, set on April 24 of this year when Jason Giambi was playing in his first series in Oakland with the Yankees. Wednesday's game became a sellout about 40 minutes before game time and included a walkup of 20,514. The crowd is actually the second largest to see a baseball game in Oakland history, behind Game 3 of the 2001 AL Division Series -- 55,861. . . . The A's pushed their winning streak to six games against the Royals, their longest winning streak ever against Kansas City. Each of the six games played in Oakland this season have been decided by one run. . . . Hatteberg's walk-off homer was Oakland's fifth this season and the third by a pinch-hitter.