OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – Before, these Oakland Athletics were all about their stars – the Big Three aces and slugging MVPs Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada.

Those players generated the headlines while Gold Glove third baseman Eric Chavez and others waited for their turn.

Still, the A’s failed to make it past the first round of the playoffs with a pitching staff featuring Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

It’s the 2006 roster, with only Chavez and Zito left and fewer standouts than all of those other talented teams, that finally did it. Oakland is in the AL championship series for the first time in 14 years after a first-round sweep of the Minnesota Twins.

General manager Billy Beane has watched many All-Stars leave for big paychecks in larger markets. And Beane even traded away Hudson and Mulder in a three-day span in December 2004, two shocking moves that eventually turned out to be just right.

Zito is no longer the dominant pitcher he was during his 2002 AL Cy Young Award season, though he’s still expected to depart as a free agent after this year. Frank Thomas was considered washed up when Oakland got him on the cheap last winter. And Chavez played much of this season with a variety of injuries that kept him from reaching his potential.

Somehow, through setback after setback, the A’s put together another one of their trademark second-half surges to win the AL West and end a two-year playoff drought – and did so with much less fanfare than the other playoff teams.

“We don’t get a lot of attention and we’re the underdogs,” Zito said. “But I’ve had that my whole career. We don’t worry about it.”

There will certainly be more attention now.

Marco Scutaro, a fabulous fill-in during three seasons in Oakland and playing in his first postseason, matched an A’s record with four RBIs in Friday’s 8-3 victory. He became the starting shortstop when Bobby Crosby, the 2004 AL Rookie of the Year, went on the disabled list in late August with a lower back injury.

Scutaro has seven game-ending hits during his tenure with the A’s.

“I don’t really know what to say,” said Scutaro, nicknamed “Mr. Clutch” by teammate Nick Swisher. “In this kind of situation, I just look for my pitch and try to make contact – and for the last three years it’s just been working for me.”

Things worked for Thomas in 2006, a resurgent season for the 38-year-old slugger who was let go by the Chicago White Sox last winter after 16 seasons.

The Big Hurt, who has a two-year offer on the table from the A’s to stick around through 2008, batted .270 with 39 home runs and 114 RBIs in 137 games this year after missing all but 108 games the past two seasons with the White Sox because of injury. He didn’t play during their run to the World Series title last October.

Thomas homered twice in Game 1 of the division series in the Metrodome – his first postseason homers since 1993 – and also had a hit in both Games 2 and 3. He is hitting .500 (5-for-10) so far in these playoffs.

“I said it’s just a matter of time. I look back now and change has been good,” Thomas said. “I was very fortunate to get on a team that had a very good chance to do something special.”

And then there’s Jay Payton, a Red Sox castoff, and Dan Haren – the pitcher Oakland acquired from St. Louis in the Mulder trade.

Payton batted .333 in the division series and has a nine-game postseason hitting streak.

Haren has pitched better than Mulder in clutch games and came up huge to win Game 3, securing the A’s first playoff series win since 1990.

Oakland had lost nine straight potential clinching games before eliminating the AL Central champion Twins, who rallied from a 2-1 first-round deficit to beat the A’s in 2002. Mulder lost Game 5 that year.

Mark Ellis, out for the rest of this postseason with a broken finger, played for the A’s in ’02 and also on the 2003 team that blew a 2-0 lead against Boston.

Rich Harden and Adam Melhuse were on the ’03 roster, but only Chavez and Zito experienced all four first-round flops starting in 2000 when the A’s lost Game 5 to the Yankees. They fell apart after a 2-0 division series lead to New York the following year, too.

When Beane traded Hudson and Mulder, plenty of people questioned his sanity – even after the book “Moneyball” put Beane’s unconventional management approach on the map.

That’s when he began remaking a roster he insisted would eventually be a winner. And, suddenly, Beane is looking like a genius yet again.

Milton Bradley, who became an outcast in just two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers before the A’s dealt for him last December, overcame two DL stints to become a key contributor down the stretch and in the playoffs. On Friday, he hit a two-run homer and threw Torii Hunter out at the plate in a disputed call that saved a run.

“Billy put this all together,” Oakland owner Lewis Wolff said after being soaked in the celebratory clubhouse by Swisher. “He did a fantastic job. He motivates the players and vice versa. They motivate him. Billy has fixed the holes we had the year before. We’re not only set for this year, we’re set for the next couple of years.”

AP-ES-10-07-06 1737EDT


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