Ratto: Falling fast

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It wasn't much of a chance, true, but it was the best thing the Oakland A's had going for them Tuesday night -- the bases loaded, two outs, and Erubiel Durazo at the plate. Hope oozed from every filled seat in Happy Valley Coliseum, and the vibe was rich.

Only Durazo popped up, and besides, the Seattle Mariners were already leading, 7-2, and besides besides, the Anaheim Angels had already toolboxed Texas two hours earlier, so the American League West was already tied. Come to think of it, the vibe really wasn't much of anything, and there wasn't much hope at all.

Thus convinced, the largest share of the crowd of 18,583 streamed out of the building, freshly redisgusted by their stuttering heroes. There are only five games left for each team, but there are tiny hints that the customers may not have the full stomach for this.

The A's, you see, have been notoriously good closers these past four years, not only clearing out the divisional competition but giving their patrons fresh illusions every season about the World Series.

Of course, those illusions don't last long, but that's October's problem. There's still some September left, and this hasn't been a very good one for the fellows.

For one, they've lost 14 of their last 22 since Sept. 4, the day they were as close to the Yankees as they've been since April.

For two, their much-noted Big Three have been, well, neither big nor three. Tim Hudson was the rake-ee of choice Tuesday, giving up seven runs and 11 hits in six innings, including five to September callups Jeremy Reed and Greg Dobbs, as well as two to that Suzuki fellow and three to Raul Ibanez.

That, combined with Mark Mulder's month-long tire fire and Barry Zito's yes-but-no season in total, have left the A's relying more and more on Rich Harden to get them through the hard spots, and the hard spots are getting longer and longer.

"We're not Superman," Hudson said.

Yet, when it was pointed out that he, Mulder and Zito had been just that for four years, he shrugged and said, "Well, maybe those September callups are our Kryptonite."

There were no outward signs of panic in the Oakland room, because they are old enough to know better than to start lining up for Xanax and Kool-Aid. But there was profound disgruntlement in the stadium from fans who haven't been really gruntled to any great extent since 1999.

But in the previous four seasons, the team was on the come, young, loose, fiery and completely at home with the idea of the short days of late September. This is not that team.

They are older, more worldly, and without question less talented than the previous four. The bullpen has been a constant issue, the starters more problematic, and watching Mark Kotsay all but stop dead as he steamed into third base and Durazo hurt his foot and bend over in agony indicates that they are not steaming into October so much as they are crawling toward it.

Of course, body language is often a great whopping lie: "Kotsay will play the rest of the way, I'm sure," manager Ken Macha said, "and so will Durazo. They know this is that time."

Still, these A's are so different than the others that even their most ardent supporters (The 18K Hardcore Brigade) are not storming the gates with anticipation, or leaving in a very yummy frame of mind. When Durazo popped out, the fans got out, suspecting with good reason that, even though these were the Mariners they were playing, there was no point in remaining.

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