One step at a time

Rogers_1Just because it’s the playoffs, it doesn’t make us immune to what’s going on, so I was able to appreciate what Kenny Rogers did tonight as a fellow pitcher. Kenny was probably the best we’ve ever seen him, and he’s been really good against us in the past. He’s had two of his best games of the year here in the playoffs, and I can definitely appreciate that.

I don’t think we need history to rely on, thinking about what the Red Sox did a couple of years ago. If we can just stay focused and worry about playing the game one step at a time, one fundamental at a time, we won’t get too far ahead of ourselves and feel like we have so much to overcome. It’s definitely possible for us to win the game tomorrow, and if we can do that, we move on to the next day. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and say, "OK, boys, we have to win four straight," because anyone who does that is going to come up short.

I think Rich Harden came out a little juiced up, a little amped up. This was his first playoff start, and no matter how you think you’ve prepared, it’s just a different situation, and I think that’s why he was throwing some balls to the first couple of guys. He was just juiced up, and that’s kind of been his pattern. Once he gets past the first inning or so and settles in, he just dominates, and that’s kind of what he did today. He started finding control with his heater and his change. Monroe hit that fastball good; it was a decent pitch that was down. But other than that, there was nothing, and Rich really showed a lot after coming off a tough year with a lot of injuries, and he really did what we asked.

He just happened to go up against Kenny on one of his best days.

Kenny was changing speeds and throwing everything for strikes when he needed to, and then he’d get guys chasing balls out of the zone. That’s what his M.O. is when he’s ahead, and that’s tough on our guys. Kenny makes his money on balls out of the zone, and that’s kind of the way I am, too.

I watched Glavine pitch yesterday, just a crafty lefty getting it done, and then today I watched Kenny completely on top of his stuff. That just goes to show you that you don’t need blazing fastballs to get big-league hitters out. You just have to change speeds and hit your spots and have an idea of what you’re doing.

I feel good about Dan Haren tomorrow. I’m sure he’s excited to get out there, and he’s got nothing to lose. None of us have anything to lose. We just need to play with a lot of heart tomorrow and not play like we have to protect anything or play not to lose. We can’t worry about anything that’s happened earlier in the series. We just have to let it all hang out, play with heart and not hang our heads.

Remembering Cory


Me, Jermaine Dye and Cory Lidle in 2002.

I’ll get to tonight’s game in a minute, but first I want to say a few things about Cory Lidle.

I considered Lidle one of my better friends on the team when he was here. There’s only a handful of guys that I could call up at any point, in-season or off-season, and just shoot the breeze, and he’s one of the few out of all the guys that I’ve played with. And I think a lot of guys considered him that way. I know Huddy was a big fan of Lidle, and pretty much everyone who ever played with him was, because he was like a kid. He played the game like a kid; he was just happy to be in the big leagues.

He was the kind of guy who was a straight shooter, and if he pitched a bad game or whatever, he’d tell it to your face. He was always accountable, and he would never try to scapegoat by putting it on the umpire or this or that. He was always accountable and had a lot of integrity, and those are traits that I take a lot of pride in having myself.

You get into a baseball clubhouse, and a lot of guys — especially the superstars — put stuff off on the umpire, the conditions, the weather, the coaches … anything that makes it seem like they can still keep their confidence. I notice that in a lot of guys. They want to maintain their confidence, so no matter what, it wasn’t their fault. And Lidle was the exact opposite, as I try to be.

Being a young kid and seeing Lidle come through here in ’01 and ’02, I was always impressed by him. You know, he had the No. 4 starter’s spot, but he didn’t take it lightly. He went out and shoved and always gave his all, and I think that’s something we’ll all remember.

I wasn’t actually playing today, but I think I can speak for the team in saying that it kind of shook us up a little bit — especially the guys that knew him, like Chavvy and myself, who were here the whole time he was here. I kept in touch with him for a couple of years after he left, but I hadn’t spoken to him recently. And it’s almost like you don’t have to. That’s how it is with friends. You could just pick up the phone out of the blue and pick up where you left off.

He wanted me to go to his celebrity poker tournament last year, but for some reason I couldn’t make it, and that’s something I’ll always regret now. That would have been a good last memory of him.

But I’m sure he’s happy now, and he’s in a good place. If it was up to him, he’d probably have us all take the tragedy lightly and not be all serious about it, because he was never that serious. It’s still unreal sad, though.

As far as baseball goes, being down 0-2, it’s tough. We’ve never been here before, 0-2 in an ALCS, but this team has certainly come back from some adversity this year, so I don’t really consider this any different. And I don’t think we should handle it any different. We shouldn’t panic, and we shouldn’t feel like we have to do anything but be ourselves.

If anything, we can learn from these two games and tell ourselves that if we’ve been pressing at all to just relax. The Tigers are obviously the favorites now, so let’s surprise some people.

I don’t know if we’ve been pressing as a team because I’m not in the heads of most guys, but I know I put a little too much pressure on myself in Game 1 to come out and be perfect instead of just being normal. If I’m just normal Zito, I pitch deep into the game like I normally do. But I think I fell into a trap that a lot of guys fall into, which is treating it like a totally different situation, totally different baseball, blah, blah, blah. No. It’s all the same. It’s just the surrounding stuff is more intense.

Having a day off now will probably be a good thing. It’ll be good to just chill out and go get familiar with Detroit and with their field, the cold weather, get settled, and have a whole new fresh approach for Friday.

Don’t bet against us

WalkGeneral thoughts: I just got away from my game plan of focusing on every pitch. I think I was nitpicking a little too much out there instead of just coming after them. A lot of times with an aggressive team, a pitcher will start to throw more balls out of the zone, and I think that’s what I did today instead of just coming at them with strikes and let them get themselves out.

There’s quite a few aggressive hitters with the Tigers, and I was throwing balls in the strike zone at that point. I think overall I threw nine out of 21 first-pitch strikes — not good. And then probably only about 53, 54 percent strikes overall, and I think that was the difference because when I come out commanding the zone early, I put teams on the defensive, and I don’t think they ever felt like they were on the defensive tonight.

Even early, when I was getting guys out, I didn’t have great fastball command. Guillen popped up a ball that was kind of in the middle of the plate, and I got away with some things. I threw some good changeups off the plate, but more than anything, fastball command sets up the offspeed, and if I’m not throwing the ball in for strikes or away for strikes, they don’t really need to worry about it. And I think tonight they knew that the changeup was the only consistent pitch I could throw in the zone, and Pudge hit a 2-1 change to the opposite field for a homer, and Inge hit a 2-0 change for a double to left-center. Both very good pitches, but we didn’t get to them by throwing fastballs in the zone.

They were gonna make me throw them strikes, and that’s just something I didn’t do. I think a lot of teams that face me, if they’re not swinging, it’s either because they’re trying to time me or because they’re going to make me throw strike one, and I didn’t throw strike one nearly enough, so I take full responsibility for the loss.

It would have been nice to come away, opening at home, with Game 1. But the reality is we didn’t. I think we got a good feel for what the ALCS is about, though, and hopefully we can go out there tomorrow and get a split out of this little series within the series and just take it back to their place. Obviously it’s not ideal, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world because it’s a seven-game series.

The bullpen was outstanding, and you could say that we didn’t have clutch hitting, but when I put us in a hole like that, it changes the momentum, because you never know. If it’s 0-0, maybe we do have some clutch hitting. It’s all about momentum in the playoffs.

I just have to pound the zone, simple as that. Everything felt good. My mechanics felt good, my arm felt live. I think it’s just a mindset of attacking them and making them inflict the damage on you instead of trying to nitpick and pitch away from contact, and I got away from that.

The layoff between series might have affected us a little bit. Whenever you have a few days off like that, you kind of start to maybe chill out too much, and having that day off Saturday was unexpected for all of us, but it’s something we have to rebound from now and not worry about it.

I would never bet against this team. First of all because it’s against the rules, but also because we’ve been through so much, and we’ve been counted out many times. If we can just refocus and clean the slate for tomorrow, I think things will start to look up for us.

I feel good about tomorrow with Esteban going. He’s probably been our most dominant pitcher the last three months of the season. He pitched great for us in Minnesota, and I’m looking for him to come out and get us back in this thing.

The crowd was outstanding tonight. The energy was electric, better than I’ve ever seen it. I remember in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Yankees when we had a chance to close them out, and it was a very similar feel. We probably had 20,000 more people then because the upstairs was open back then, but tonight we had 35,000 and they sounded like 55,000. That was pretty impressive, and I’m sure it’ll be the same for Game 2.

Relaxed and ready for Game 1

Tomorrow night is going to be a lot of fun, not just for us, but for the crowd. We?ve had a lot of great fans over the seven seasons I?ve been here, and they?ve been there with us every step of the way, from us getting eliminated in the first round 2000 through 2003 to crickets for us the next two years, missing the playoffs, up to now. They?ve been with us the whole time, and now that we have the tarps up there covering the upper deck, they really have to make an effort to get tickets. It?s not like in 2002 where we had empty seats up there; that was a tough feeling seeing that for Game 5 of the ALDS. But it?s good that the fans can get back here for this. We?ve got a lot of love for the fans on our team, and I?m sure the fans can sense the relationships that we have and the characters we have, and they get involved in all that.

I think the tarps kind of have added to the whole intimacy thing here. The first two levels that are open to the fans kind of make it feel like they?re a little bit more on top of the game, not just dispersed intermittently across this whole football stadium. It?s been something that?s cool. I?m sure it?s an experiment for ownership, and I?m sure they know what they?re doing. If they were going to make money or lose money either way, I don?t think that mattered. I think it was more about testing a true baseball atmosphere, and it?s pretty exciting. Not to say I wouldn?t love more fans here in the upper deck, but if we can go as far as the World Series, they might consider taking off the tarps.

Today, I was asked about clubhouse chemistry in my press conference and how it?s changed. It?s kind of tough to really put your finger on a tangible difference between different teams, because you have so many different personalities brought into the mix. I can say overall that the consistency in the team dynamic has always been that we?re nice and loose, we?re relaxed. Billy Beane sets the tone for having kind of a pressure-free environment. He?s not this suit who?s going to come down to the locker room and grill guys and get on them and make big scenes and let everyone know what?s expected of the team.

But you can look at a couple different personalities on the team, like Mark Kotsay, who?s an outspoken leader on the field and off the field. He?s a great leader on the field. And then you have Jason Kendall, who?s one of the most die-hard, hard-nosed players in the league, and just the true grit that he shows every day. And you can look at a guy like Frank Thomas, a Hall of Fame guy who really leads by example and gives us all something to strive for. He gives us all a reason to work a little harder to be a little better, and maybe one day we can be in his shoes after 16 or 17 years. You look at Milton Bradley, a guy who brings fire to the game. There?s been some confrontations and controversies and some hype and everything about Milton, but the bottom line is that he brings a flair we haven?t had in Oakland. Eric Byrnes had some flair, but Milton has some flair in a different way, and I think he plays with a little anger, too. I think that fires us up. That?s something Milton shows us. He channels that anger by going out and hitting and making great catches and great throws in right field. It?s just a good mix in the clubhouse. Like I said, a lot of characters, and a lot of fun.

I?m really happy for Marco Scutaro right now. Scooter?s been our ringer. He?s been able to do it all over the diamond at different times, and whenever we?ve needed him, he?s been there for us. And more than being a solid backup, he?s just really come through in the clutch. The other teams sees this No. 8 or No. 9 hitter coming up, and that probably relaxes them a little bit, but Scooter just comes through, whether it?s against K-Rod or any other huge closer in the game, he just gets it done. And what he did against the Twins just shows you that the guy honestly believes he?s a huge part of our success, and he believes that he?s a great player and that he can contribute. ? He?s real funny, too. He does a lot of funny voices, and he kind of does parodies of himself and other players in the clubhouse, and he really kind of entertains us. He?s not really Latin even though he?s from Venezuela because his Dad is from Italy and his Mom?s Spanish, but with a lot of Latin guys, with the language barrier, they don?t get a chance to really blossom and show guys their true personalities. Whereas Scooter?s given us a full impression of himself. It took him a couple of years to settle in, but not he?s a huge part of the clubhouse, and he really keeps us loose, just like Kotsay.

As for me and my preparation, having a little bit longer between starts isn?t a big deal at all. My preparation has been the same. I?ve just thrown a couple extra bullpens since we had the extra days, but I?m just real focused on how good I can be on every pitch. And if I just focus on every pitch, I might find myself out there still in the seventh or eighth innings. I?ve pitched in rain delays in Cleveland — pretty bad ones — and I?ve gotten knocked off my routine a lot. I?ve pitched on three days rest. It?s just another start like any, and my arm feels good, and I think that?s all that matters.

I faced the Tigers once this year, early, back when I was good-bad, good-bad, that kind of thing. It was good. They?re definitely a great hitting team. They play small ball, they hit-and-run, they steal, they?ll bunt, and they?ll do situational hitting when they have to, hitting the ball to the right side and sac flies. So they?re tough. They?re not just out there swinging for the fences; you can always pitch to those teams a little easier. They?re gonna put the ball in play and they?re gonna put up a lot of hits, so you just need the defense to come out and play well like they?ve been playing.

You can?t ever pitch to their weaknesses. I kind of fell into that a little bit in 2004, when I was struggling a little bit, trying to really manufacture good outings instead of just letting them happen. I started to out-think myself, watching way too much tape on guys, things like that. If I stick with my strengths, which is what got me here to the big leagues and got me the Cy Young, nothing else matters. If I make my pitches, these guys will get themselves out. It?s when you try to do too much that you fall behind and leave balls out over the middle, that?s when trouble starts happening.

Tonight, I?m just going to chill out at my house. Watch a movie, surf the Internet, play some guitar. Just relax. Same old stuff for me. It?s just another start. Everything around me seems a little more intense or amplified, but my preparation out there on the mound is just about 60 feet and six inches, me and a catcher and a hitter, and if we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. Time will play itself out.

I cant explain how it feels

I honestly don?t think I?m going to be able to effectively communicate the emotions of this moment very well. It?s unprecedented, this feeling. I?ve never been here. How can I quantify it in any way?

I guess I?ll just start with how great it is to get this out of the way. It?s not just about me and Eric Chavez. It?s about Mark Ellis and Adam Melhuse, who were on the team in 2003. It?s about Ken Macha and Ron Washington and Brad Fischer, who have been on the coaching staff since we started going to the playoffs in 2000. It?s about Billy Beane. It?s just unbelievable that we can finally move forward past all that negative energy associated with not getting past the first round. We?ve broken that curse of being the great team that can?t get over the hump, all that b.s. everyone talks about. It?s over.

Now we go to go into this new territory, this place we?ve never been. I mean, it just hit me that we?re going to be playing a seven-game series now. That?s a trip all by itself. It?s a totally different animal than a five-game series, and we get to see what that beast is all about.

The emotions today, until we got that big lead late in the game, were crappy. I was clammy, I was anxious ? I was not enjoying myself in any way. I was like Justin Duchscherer right before he has to pitch. Just sweating rockets and dealing with clammy hands. Especially with my boy Dan Haren out there on the mound. That was hard. He?s been like my protégé since he got here, or whatever you want to call it, and we have a bond that I can?t really describe. I remember the two of us talking in the dugout in Tampa early last season, when both of us were really having a tough time, and we were both thinking about how the heck we?re going to each win five games in a row just to get back to .500 for the year. So to go from there to here with him, and see him pitching in the game that finally got us over the top, I was a mess.

When Jay Payton caught that last out and everyone went to the pile, I don?t know if anyone noticed, but I just kind of hung out on the fringe of the pile, walking around it. It was a pretty cool vantage point, but I hope I get to be in that pile in a couple weeks or so. I can?t be in it now because I?ve heard too many stories about guys getting hurt in there, and right now I have to think about that kind of stuff. Unless it?s a World Series situation and I have a couple of months to recover from a broken finger or two or whatever, I have to stay out of there.

Let me say this about Chavvy: Today was almost like poetic justice. The guy has taken a lot of heat, and to have him be the guy who comes out and sets the tone today was so cool to see. He gave us the momentum we never lost, and I?m so happy for him right now. I?m happy for my family right now, too. They?ve had to sit through a lot of nerve-wracking baseball over the years, so to be able to share this with them is really special.

My mind?s starting to settle down a little bit now, and while the celebration in the clubhouse was winding down I started to think about Tim [Hudson] and Mark [Mulder] a little bit. It?s a little bit bittersweet in a sense, getting to this point without them, because they were such a huge part of this team and the A?s legacy. Both of them got in touch with me after I won the first game of the series, and that meant a lot to me, so I?m looking forward to getting in touch with them again. I know they?re happy for me right now, and it?d be nice to share it with them in some small way.

I really don?t know what else to say at this point. I?d love to be able to get all deep and philosophical for you, but I don?t really have that in me right now. I?m spent. I feel like I just finished a triathlon, physically and emotionally, and I?m spent.

The good news is I can make it up to you. The Oakland A?s are going to one of two teams left in the American League by the time we get going again Tuesday, and I?ll be checking in with you on a regular basis the rest of the way.

Thanks for all your love and support. It?s definitely feeding the fire.

Win one for the fans

The trip back from Minnesota was great. Everybody was having a good time and really nothing has changed. I think that is the great part of this team. Regardless of winning or losing, we are always pretty much the same. It doesn?t matter what the situation is. I remember during the series against the Angels at home when we were trying to clinch and we didn?t and then we failed again in the first game in Seattle. But we were still the same the next game in the clubhouse. We were still relaxed and screwing around. This team has a lot of character, resilience and tenacity. We easily forget the past.

As we head into Game 3, the atmosphere now is as loose as always. But we never take anything for granted. This isn?t a team where we?re going to sit back and be relaxed and think that we have everything wrapped up. It?s not over until that last out and that last win, after that we can relax and chill out a little bit.

To see Mark Ellis get injured again was really hard for all of us. Elli is in a class with guys like Jason Kendall, Eric Byrnes, Bobby Higginson, Darin Erstad. Those guys are some of the more hard-nose guys in the game. He?s been through this before, too. I remember watching Elli a couple of years ago separate his shoulder on a freak collision in Spring Training. He came back from that adversity and had an outstanding year last year. And now this year he has had — again — two freak accidents involving his hands. It just breaks our hearts to see him go down. The fact that he won?t be able to help us is harder on him than anyone. We?re going to miss him in the lineup. It really hurts to watch him because he is the type of player where he would rather be in the lineup more than anyone. I talked to him after he broke his finger and he seemed OK, and I?m sure he?s bummed out. He went down while he was battling a war against Joe Nathan and that?s all you can ask.

Game 3 at Oakland should have a good atmosphere. We?re going to have about 35,000 fans out there and that will be great. Hopefully the fans will be nice and loud and be involved. We just came from the Metrodome and those fans are some of the loudest fans I have ever heard. They were on their feet for something as minuscule as a single.

I hope that our fans can be that involved and give us that home-field advantage that we?re looking for.

It?s good to be back home and it?s good to come back to our fans in Oakland. Last time we left this place we weren?t 100 percent sure that we were ever going to see this place again. For all of those die hard A?s fans that haven?t seen a World Series since 1989, we hope to bring that back to them.

Leaving town 2-0 — Whoa!

Wow. To be honest with you, being up 2-0 in the series is something I don?t think any of us expected. Coming in, I think we would have been happy with a split, because nobody could have thought we?d come in and win both.

That just goes to show you how huge Game 1 was for us. That obviously feeds your fuel to go out and win Game 2 and just drive the nail in, so Game 1 set the tone for everything. It kind of put their backs against the wall, and it kind of put us in the driver seat. All of a sudden we had the leeway to lose Game 2, which makes you play a little bit looser — as opposed to being down 0-1, when all the pressure?s on you to get back to even. Conventional wisdom definitely did not have us leaving here 2-0. Kotsayparty275

Mark Kotsay?s inside-the-parker is obviously the big story today, and that was unbelievable. The fact that Kots can go out there, after playing in the league for 10 years without making it to the playoffs, and have a great moment like that, it?s storybook stuff. Amazing. And I love seeing him get some credit for once. The guy is so good, and defensively, he?s second to none. He should be getting Gold Gloves, and it is ironic that his homer came at the expense of Torii Hunter, another Gold Glover. It?s just great to see Kots absolutely thrive in his first playoff series. That he can come out and not worry about screwing up and just play his game, that shows you what a pro he is.

What Huston Street did today was huge, too. He had to battle some injuries this year and actually pitched through some of them, and he had a tough time there at the end of September. But here he is, 23 years old and on the biggest stage of his life, and he finds a way to get it done. Without that crazy ball in the ceiling yesterday, it would have been a 1-2-3 inning, and today, yeah, it was dicey there at the end, but the bottom line is he went out there with a three-run lead, and we won by three runs. Last time I checked, that?s what closers are supposed to do.

A lot of people have asked me how this team is different from the 2001 and 2003 teams, and I guess they think they?re being sneaky, asking me about us blowing 2-0 leads in the first round those years without mentioning the blowing specifically. But come on. I?m a jock, not a dumb jock. Nobody?s that dumb.

But for the record, here?s my answer, from the heart: Every team is different, even from one year to the next. Different players, different personalities, different mindsets. And I?m not going to say this team is better equipped to avoid blowing this kind of lead, because that?s a shot at those other teams, and I loved those teams. I never thought in a million years we?d blow those leads. But this team, I can assure you, is not in any kind of freak-out mode, thinking, ?Oh my god. Here we go again. Hope we don?t blow it.? It?s not that at all. We?re just a bunch of guys who play hard and will keep playing hard until they tell us we can?t play anymore. We don?t have many guys who experienced the whole A?s playoff saga. There?s probably 21, 22 guys who weren?t here for any of it, so they?re not like, ?Man, we gotta find a way to get out of the first round.? That?s not what they?re playing for, so it?s not in their psyches.

So now we?re heading home for Game 3 on Friday, and I?m so excited to see Dan Haren pitch for us. Haren is a great friend of mine. I love Haren. I love the way he pitches, and I love how he deals with pitching. We?ve had a lot of deep talks about pitching and mindsets and stuff like that, and I?m just looking forward to sitting back and watching my boy carve.

I?ll check in again from the workout Thursday in Oakland. Thanks for reading — and for writing in.

An awesome day in Minnesota

My main thing going into this, even last night at the hotel, was to just come out and focus on doing my job. I think that might get a little misconstrued when you talk about, ?What exactly is a pitcher?s job?? Well, Greg Maddux taught me this in an interview I saw with him years ago. The interviewer was like, ?Oh gosh, you?re such an amazing pitcher. You?ve won all these Cy Youngs and you?ve done this and you?ve done that,? and Maddux told the guy, ?Look, all I do is make pitches. Everything else just happens.? And it?s that simple. A pitcher?s job is to make pitches, period. Do that, and that?s all you can do.

It goes back to a speedboat analogy I like to use. If I can just control the speedboat from up front and make pitches, then the wins and the ERA and the playoffs and the awards and all that other stuff is just kind of behind that, in the wake. Leading the way is me making pitches, and I can?t try to come out here thinking that single-handedly, I have to beat Johan Santana, and the Twins, and the Metrodome, and 55,000 fans, and the noise. You start thinking like that, and it?s like walking up a mountain trying to pull a two-ton trailer behind you, and it seems impossibleZito_blog_275.

And that?s the distinction when you talk about professional athletes as opposed to amateur athletes. The pros, the ones at the highest level, they know how to narrow their focus on what it is they need to do. They can compartmentalize. What is my job, exactly? My job is to go out on the mound, be totally mellow, and make pitches the best I can. Everything else will happen, and those guys will get themselves out, if I make the pitches.

So that was my main focus. I slept like a baby last night. I was actually under the weather a little bit last night, so I took about 20,000 milligrams of Vitamin C powder and had some TheraFlu to help me get to sleep, and I was fine. The tough thing was this morning, coming out and getting ready to pitch at 10 o?clock Pacific Time, because we were just on the West Coast for two weeks. You have to get yourself on a different sleep schedule.

Coming into this playoff game, I think it was different for me emotionally this year because before my career arc was like, ?OK, Z, you?re in Double-A, you?re in Triple-A, boom, you?re in the big leagues, and boom again, you?re in the playoffs. And then the next year — big leagues, playoffs. And the next year — big leagues, playoffs. And the next year, same thing. Four straight years that was me, and then I experienced a lull. No playoffs for two years. And I started to realize how rare it is, how important it is, how much pressure it is, and all of that. So it was a little different for me this time, dealing with those emotions. You realize, ‘Hey, I can?t take this for granted.’ I?ve been to the playoffs five years now, but it takes not going to realize how special it is when you do go.

As far as the game itself goes, wow. Johan Santana is my favorite pitcher to watch. Johan and Derek Lowe. I don?t know if I?ve matched up with Johan recently, but I actually did watch him a little today, and normally I don?t watch the guy I?m facing. So that was fun, watching his greatness and trying to match it. And it was great for us to get that 2-0 lead. That really helped me. I knew that if I just did my job and held them down, we wouldn?t have to beg for runs later on. You can?t ask for a lot of offense off a guy like Johan, so to get two that early was unbelievable.

The first inning was bigger than people might think. I walked the leadoff guy, which is never a good idea, and when Jason Kendall threw him out, it was so huge. And that just shows you something about Kendall. The guy?s a 10-year veteran of the big leagues, and he?d be the first guy to tell you he struggled with his throwing last year, but he has so much integrity and passion and pride, he went out and did something about it. He worked on it over the winter, and I don?t know exactly what the numbers are, but it?s been a different world for him as far as throwing guys out. His percentage has to be at least double or triple what it was last year, and to do what he did, gunning the first guy to go off him in the playoffs, that?s the kind of thing I really appreciate as a teammate. Not because it saved my butt, which it did, but because I know how much work he put in to make that moment possible.

Oak_thomas2_275And if that rally turned into something for them, that could have been a lead that we never got back. It would have put all the momentum in their court. Johan would have been pitching with a lead, and that could have changed the entire complexion of the game.

The biggest out of the game was getting Joe Mauer to fly out in the eighth. Runner on third, two out, AL batting champion. It was by far the biggest at-bat of the game for me, and it ended up being my last. I knew I was done after the eighth. I was exhausted. People don?t realize that in this atmosphere, in this environment, 92 pitches feels like 192.

And what can I saw about Frank Thomas? Just ridiculous, that guy. And as big as that first homer was, the second one ended up being even bigger because of what happened to Milton Bradley in the ninth, losing that ball in the roof. This place is crazy, man. For whatever reason, they put a white roof on it. I guess nobody told them baseballs are white or something. We need to bring back those orange glow-in-the-dark balls we used to have growing up for games here. That?d be a lot easier, because even the Twins guys, if you look back in the archives, their guys have lost tons of balls here. So Milton loses one, too, they get a cheap run, and all of a sudden Frank?s homer is the nail in the coffin. Without that homer, if what happened in the bottom of the ninth had still happened, that just takes the spirit right out of you. You?d be like, ‘Oh man, we just battled these guys for 2 1/2 hours, and now we?re gonna go extra innings? Uncle.’ But hey, Frank sets the tone for us. He?s the best. MVP. That?s why he?s a Hall of Famer.

People are gonna say this series is over because we beat Johan in the dome, but they still have the best home record in baseball, and obviously Johan didn?t pitch in all those games


they won. It doesn?t matter who you throw out on the mound for them in this place. We can?t let down at all. Boof Bonser is pitching for them tomorrow, and we can?t say facing a young guy is an automatic win for us by any means. The guy?s in the big leagues and in the starting rotation for a division champion, and you have no idea what the playoffs pull out of guys. If Boof Bonser is a straight gamer, he?s going to come out and shove. And me and Eric Chavez know more than anybody, even a two-game lead isn?t safe in these things. We?ve been on teams that blew those leads, and we?re not taking anything for granted. Let?s wait until that last out of that third win until we even think about the series as a whole.

One last thing, about the noise here. You know that Kevin Costner movie, "Love of the Game"? You know when he talked about, ‘Quieting the mechanism?’ I don?t know how I did it, but I quieted this crowd in my head today. Last time I pitched in the playoffs here, I?d look in for the signs, and Ramon Hernandez?s fingers looked like they were shaking from sound waves bouncing around. But today my focus was so sharp, and it was like I just turned the volume down in my head. It was just me and Jason, pitch and catch. That, more than anything, was the key for me today. It?s not easy to block out 55,000 people, but I — we — did it somehow. Just an awesome day.

This is gonna be a blast

Obviously I?m excited to get back to the playoffs myself, but it?s also exciting to see a lot of our young guys get to experience the game at this level. Guys like Huston Street and Nick Swisher, they?re in for a really cool ride. And the fact that we?ve also got great veterans like Frank Thomas and Jason Kendall and Mark Kotsay, it feels like we?ve got a lot of fuel behind this effort.

On a personal note, it?s good to be able to start Game 1. I?ve been to the playoffs four times, and I?ve never pitched that first game of a series. I?ve pitched Game 2 and Game 5, and I pitched Game 3 a couple times, but it?s all on me right now to set the tone for the series, and going up against Johan Santana, you couldn?t ask for a better matchup.

I only faced the Twins once this year, but I feel good about where I am. They?re at home and they?re gonna be comfortable, and the Metrodome is going to be unreal loud, but no matter where you are, if you make your pitches, you?re going to have success.

Their home-field advantage is the best in the game, no doubt about it. And it?s mainly because that dome keeps all the sound in, and it just pours over you from every direction. I pitched Game 3 there in the 2002 ALDS, and before that game I actually warmed up with earplugs in, and I threw my pre-game bullpen with earplugs in, too. I took them out at the last minute, though. It was just too weird to have my first earplug experience in a playoff game. But we won 4-3, so I?m looking forward to going back in there and being a little more comfortable with everything.

Facing a guy like Santana in the postseason is what it?s all about. He?s a Cy Young candidate this year, and when I pitched against them in 2002 I was a Cy Young guy, and if you?re a fan, you can?t ask for anything more than to see us go head-to-head in the playoffs. That?s why the playoffs are so great: You get the No. 1 guys matched back up with each other. During the course of the season, rotations get changed and you don?t see those guys face each other as much as you?d like, but the playoffs brings them back together, and that?s definitely cool.

Being one of the veterans with a few playoff experiences under my belt, I might call a meeting together before the game on Tuesday. Maybe I?ll talk to Big Frank about it first, because he?s the ultimate vet, but I think it?d be good for some guys to hear from us. You don?t want anybody to feel like they need to try to be over and above anything they were in the regular season. Just be what you are right now. The great players in the game are the ones who execute the fundamentals consistently, and if we execute fundamentals, we?ll be as good as we?ve been all year.

I think you?re always confident going into the playoffs. That?s another thing that?s great about it. There?s always this restored sense of optimism; kind of like going into the start of Spring Training every year. It doesn?t matter what?s gone on in the recent past. Anything that?s bad that happened during the season is behind you, and now it?s just going out and trying to win one game, one series.

I love what this team has become. We overcame a lot of injuries to win our division, and that in itself gives us a lot of confidence. We?ve got a great bullpen, great starting pitching, great defense, and our offense was great in the second half of the season, so we?re feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Any team that gets to this point is a great team, and we?re no exception. Now it?s time to show that on the big stage of October, and I get to kick it off for us, so I?m way psyched. This is gonna be a blast, and I hope the fans have as much fun as we plan to have.

I?ll check in again after Game 1.