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Game 3 was a night errant

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The mistakes will come, of course. They always do. And when they occur in front a national television audience in the glaring spotlight of postseason baseball, each error will be analyzed, replayed, and talked about.

Can you say "Bill Buckner"?

The Red Sox and A's went into last night's fifth and final game of their American League Division Series aware that mistakes such as the ones committed in Game 3 could end a season. Add the presence of Boston's Pedro Martinez, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, and the A's Barry Zito, last year's Cy Young winner, and you had a narrow margin for error. As well as disaster.

Knowing all that didn't mitigate the tension last night in Network Associates Coliseum. Nor did it lessen the frustration felt by the Oakland players, whose 2-0 series lead evaporated over the weekend.

In Saturday's Game 3 for the ages, which the Red Sox won on Trot Nixon's pinch-hit home run in the 11th inning, the teams combined for six errors, four by Oakland. Sunday's Game 4, another candidate for an ESPN Instant Classic, featured defensive gems rather than miscues.

There were diving plays by A's shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was still smarting from his Game 3 base-running lapse that cost the A's a run, perhaps the game. There was the near-flawless play of A's third baseman Eric Chavez, who was responsible for two Game 3 errors. There were potential game-saving plays by Sox third baseman Bill Mueller, including a tumbling-into-the-stands grab of a Scott Hatteberg foul pop to end the Oakland seventh. There were a classic throw, by Sox center fielder Johnny Damon to gun down Jose Guillen at third base in the fourth.

"It's the best defensive game I've ever seen on both sides," said John Burkett, the Sox' Game 4 starter. "Guys were making incredible plays.

"I didn't think I pitched all that well, but guys were diving all over the place."

The A's left seven runners on base in both Games 3 and 4. They could have done better and they know it. And that's a big reason why Oakland was not already in New York preparing for Game 1 of the ALCS tomorrow night.

"Without the gifts we gave them out there, we'd be celebrating right now," said A's pitcher Tim Hudson after Sunday's sobering loss. "We still feel confident. I think we're playing pretty good baseball except for Saturday. We feel we have the better team."

Last night, they tried to prove it to a baseball nation waiting for the Yankees to get a dance partner.

But the A's also knew the reality of the situation as they faced a rested and focused Martinez. They knew that all of the tension could have been erased with a few simple plays over the weekend.

"We just didn't get it done," said A's center fielder Eric Byrnes. "It's as simple as that."

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