OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – Ten of Oakland’s top decision makers held a closed-door meeting in the manager’s office Sunday and cast their votes on who should start for the Athletics in Game 2 of the AL championship series – Rich Harden or Esteban Loaiza.

The tally: Harden 5, Loaiza 5.

Loaiza won the tiebreaker based on his health, recent results and reliability. Harden has only pitched three times since missing more than three months with an elbow injury.

As expected, the A’s named left-hander Barry Zito the starter for Game 1 on Tuesday night in the Coliseum against the wild card Detroit Tigers, who lost the ALDS opener before rallying to win three straight and eliminate the New York Yankees on Saturday.

Loaiza will pitch Wednesday.

“There was a lot of debate,” general manager Billy Beane said. “I’m not sure there was a clear answer. I think as much as anything, the ultimate result was kind of knowing what you’re going to get. Esteban just recently pitched. There was a good side to both decisions. There was a good side and a bad side. …

“Obviously when Rich is in midseason form and he’s healthy, he’s as dominant as anybody in the league. Then you have to ask yourself at what point is he right now, given the layoff?”

Harden, meanwhile, hasn’t pitched in so long that he will travel to Arizona for an instructional league game Monday. The A’s will decide definitively after that whether to use him in Game 3 or 4 – though Harden will probably follow Dan Haren and pitch Game 4 based on the rest he would have after Monday’s outing. Pitching coach Curt Young was set to accompany Harden to Phoenix.

The AL West champion A’s swept the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS for their first playoff series win in 16 years and reached their first ALCS since 1992. Harden didn’t pitch in the first round and last threw Oct. 1 – the final day of the regular season – in Anaheim.

A 10-game winner last year and 11-game winner in ’04, he was clearly disappointed by the decision not to use him in Game 2 and didn’t talk to reporters after it was announced.

“I want to get out there. I want to pitch,” he said before the team’s workout. “All I can do is sit here and tell them I want to go. I’m feeling good.”

Loaiza, the AL pitcher of the month after an unbeaten August, won Game 2 of the division series in the Metrodome. He was an 11-game winner in his first season with Oakland despite a slow start and a stint on the disabled list.

“I feel great,” Loaiza said. “It’s their decision, their call. I’ve got to be ready for Game 2 and go out and put the results on the board the way I did in the second half.”

Frank Thomas didn’t count on knowing the A’s opponent so soon, figuring New York would force a Game 5 back at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.

“I don’t think you can ever be surprised in a five-game series,” said Beane, who received a congratulatory message from Yankees GM Brian Cashman. “After Game 1, everybody thought the Yankees were going to sweep them.”

Thomas was equally as stunned not to be picked as AL Comeback Player of the Year, which instead went to Jim Thome on Saturday.

The 38-year-old Big Hurt, let go by the Chicago White Sox last winter after 16 seasons, 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 was kind of shocked. I think we both deserved the award but I learned a lot of years ago that life isn’t always fair,” Thomas said. “We both had good seasons. I guess he has more fans than I do.”

A’s owner Lewis Wolff wanted a chance to face off against George Steinbrenner’s $200 million roster, but is content with home-field advantage.

“I’d like to be at home,” Wolff said. “I think this team matches up with both, but I’d like to try the Yankees on for size.”

The grounds crew had already replaced the ‘D’ from the ALDS logo along each base line to a ‘C’ for the ALCS thanks to some clever paint work. The Tigers were scheduled to arrive in the Bay Area early Sunday evening and both teams will hold workouts Monday.

The A’s brought in minor league infielder Mark Kiger for Sunday’s session, but were waiting until the last possible minute to decide whether to add him or Keith Ginter to the roster. Oakland lost second baseman Mark Ellis to a broken right index finger in the ninth inning of Game 2 against the Twins and D’Angelo Jimenez replaced him.

Kiger, who played at both Triple-A and Double-A this season, got a call from the A’s last Wednesday and he reported to Arizona the next day for instructional league. He still had been throwing and hitting regularly.

“I was like, ‘What?”‘ said Kiger, who can play second, shortstop or third. “I didn’t know the situation here. I knew they were doing well but I didn’t know the details or the depth of their infield. … I’m just trying to stay out of things. These guys worked their butt off to get to this point. It’s their season. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

Several bullpen pitchers who didn’t get any work in the first round threw simulated games to prepare for the ALCS. Joe Blanton, a starter during the regular season, was scheduled to take part but threw a regular bullpen instead because he is fighting a cold.

“I’ve thrown a lot this year,” Blanton said. “A week and a half without pitching isn’t going to throw me off.”

AP-ES-10-08-06 1838EDT


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