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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Playoff tinge spices this visit

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Odd to be back here. It was 11 months ago that Derek Lowe punched out Terrence Long and performed a regrettable salute to cap the Red Sox' comeback victory over the Oakland A's in the Division Series.

Last night the Red Sox beat the A's, 8-3, in their first appearance in Al Davis's playpen since the stunning October series. In a battle between the two hottest teams in baseball, Boston prevailed on the strength of more timely hitting and a solid outing from Bronson Arroyo. The Sox have won 18 of their last 20 and have beaten the A's six times in seven meetings this year.

The night was marred when A's fans littered the field with debris late in the game. In the eighth inning, third base umpire Brian Knight made an "out" call on a Mark Kotsay sinking liner that Manny Ramirez did not catch. Then in the ninth, Kotsay made a similar play charging in from center on Doug Mientkiewicz's sinking fly ball, but Mientkiewicz (correctly) was ruled safe.

Despite the loss, the A's are right back where they always are late in the season -- in first place in the American League West. If the season ended today, the Red Sox again would be sittin' on the dock of the Bay, preparing for another five-gamer with the Billy Beane AC.

The Oakland clubhouse was typically loose before the first game of this possible playoff precursor. Beane ate a tuna sandwich and circulated through the small locker room. Mark Mulder tossed a football around the room. Last night's starter, Barry Zito, arrived wearing a backpack and a turtleneck sweater, looking like he just unloaded his stuff at 700 Comm. Ave. with the rest of the BU freshmen. Oakland's cleanup hitter, Scott Hatteberg, participated in a three-man card game in which packages of bubble gum served as currency.

How do the A's keep doing it? Stars go. Johnny Damon. Jason Giambi. Miguel Tejada. Keith Foulke. But the A's keep winning. Even with a lineup in which the top run producer (Erubiel Durazo) has 78 RBIs.

"It's been collective," said Hatteberg. "Our offense is pretty spread out and that's one of the keys to our success."

Beane, in between bites of his sandwich, added, "We've got nine guys all hitting around .270 with 55 RBI and double-digit home runs. I was concerned with the power we lost in Tejada and trading [Ramon] Hernandez. We struggled early, but now I think we're going to score as many runs as we did last year."

Since the All-Star break, only the Red Sox (34-16) have played better ball than the A's (34-17). Oakland has won 16 of its last 20 and owns baseball's best home record, 45-20.

The Sox might not be the best playoff opponent for Oakland. The A's are still stinging from Boston's remarkable comeback in the playoffs in 2003 (in Oakland lore, Eric Byrnes and Tejada not touching home plate in Game 3 is every bit as painful as Grady Little's brain cramp in Game 7 of the ALCS), and the Sox beat the A's five times in six tries at Fenway this year, by an aggregate of 53-33.

"We have demons there," said Hatteberg. "Fate wasn't on our side. It's a tough place to win."

There are a lot of clubhouse crossovers when the Sox play the A's. Hatteberg was in the Red Sox organization for 11 years before joining th A's in 2002. Foulke, now the Sox closer, was Oakland's stud last year, but surrendered a huge hit to David Ortiz in the Red Sox' victory in Game 4. The Sox hired Beane for a day in the winter of 2002-03 before he changed his mind. Oakland manager Ken Macha managed in the Red Sox system for four years and Sox manager Terry Francona was Macha's bench coach in Oakland last summer.

"We talk every now and then," Macha said of Francona. "We went out for a couple of adult beverages both times we played in Boston this year.

Even though Boston is 6-1 against the A's this year, the Oakland manager isn't putting much weight on the outcome of these three games.

"I don't think this will give you any indiation of how the two teams match up,"' said Macha. "[Curt] Schilling isn't pitching in this series. It's just not the same as when you have your rotation lined up."

Lowe is pitching tonight and he's bound to hear it from the Oakland crowd. Fans who arrived early last night were hooting on the sinkerballer during batting practice.

The A's are downplaying residual anger over Lowe's playoff gesture. Tejada, who was most offended, is gone, and Hatteberg, who also was critical, said he's put it in the past. Beane said, "I haven't given that any thought at all. It was the last pitch of a five-game series. That's just emotion. I wasn't expecting him to curtsy to us."

Beane has more pressing things on his mind -- like Oakland's four-year streak of getting bounced out of the playoffs in the first round (Yankees in 2000 and 2001, Twins in 2002, Red Sox last year). In the wake of Beane's perceived "Moneyball" arrogance, a lot of people in baseball want to see him fail.

"We'll show them this year," Beane joked. "We won't make the playoffs at all. I guess if we don't make it, we can say, `Told you so.' No, seriously, it would be nice to win one. If I were a writer, I'd write about us not winning in the playoffs, too. But I still say there are random happenings in a short series."

We know, Billy. We know.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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