OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – For most of his career, Barry Zito has been defined as much by his teammates as his nasty, looping curveball.

His first postseason without fellow Big Three aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder has given the eccentric left-hander a new identity.

After outpitching Cy Young favorite Johan Santana in Oakland’s playoff opener last week at Minnesota, Zito gets another Game 1 start when the Athletics begin the AL championship series against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday night.

“He loved it when Huddy and Mulder left,” said third baseman Eric Chavez, who has played seven seasons with Zito. “He knew that was kind of his time to shine. He relished it. He hated the Big Three. He hated that name. He hated it. Now he’s kind of setting himself apart from the rest of them.”

The A’s never got out of the first round with the Big Three, losing in nine straight potential clinchers and four consecutive series from 2000-03. After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2004, general manager Billy Beane traded Hudson and Mulder in a three-day span to break up one of the game’s best trios – and Zito surprisingly was the one who stayed put to assume a leadership role for the A’s young staff.

He mentored Rich Harden, who spent time at spring training learning Zito’s routine. Dan Haren has done the same thing since coming to Oakland from St. Louis in the Mulder deal.

“It really gave me an opportunity to become a solidified No. 1,” Zito said. “For whatever reason, I had an opportunity to keep an eye on the little chicks, all the A’s players in the clubhouse.”

Zito didn’t know whether he had pitched his final home game in an A’s uniform before the All-Star break when rumors swirled he would be dealt, then again Sept. 22 in his last regular-season outing in the Coliseum against the Los Angeles Angels. He is expected to sign a big-money deal as a free agent once Oakland’s postseason run comes to an end.

Zito is not thinking that far ahead. He will take the mound on his biggest stage yet Tuesday, facing fellow left-hander Nate Robertson – one of Detroit’s many young power arms.

Both teams celebrated wildly after advancing to the ALCS.

The A’s finally ended what had begun to feel like a hex of first-round failures by sweeping the Twins. The Tigers, still hearing all about the club’s 119-loss showing from three years ago, overcame a late-season collapse that cost them the AL Central, then defeated the not-so-mighty-after-all New York Yankees.

Now, these teams must put the thrill of just getting past the first round behind them to focus on a best-of-seven series that both sides expect to be hard fought and without a clear-cut favorite.

“For us, it’s just about continuing on that high,” A’s first baseman Nick Swisher said. “So they had a little down time at the end of the year – so what.”

Both teams held raucous clubhouse parties in their home ballparks last week – first Oakland on Friday, then Detroit a day later.

“This is a loose ballclub. We’re happy to be here, but we’re here to win,” Oakland slugger Frank Thomas said. “We’ve stressed that throughout the last of the season and the playoffs so far. … They were the biggest surprise in baseball all year long. We know what to expect. They’ve earned it.”

The Tigers went all out in the season’s final game to try to win the division to avoid opening the playoffs against the Yankees, using their top relievers and even bringing in starter Kenny Rogers out of the bullpen. They still ended up being swept by the lowly Kansas City Royals and settling for the wild card.

Yet it worked out just fine for first-year manager Jim Leyland’s team, which dropped Game 1 to New York before winning three straight.

“The sweep for the A’s against the Twins is history, and the great series win for us against the Yankees is history,” Leyland said. “Now this is a new chapter, which is what the playoffs are all about. … Both teams are going to come out with confidence. Both teams have reason to be confident. Both teams had very good regular seasons. Both teams obviously had a very good playoffs so far.”

The free-swinging Tigers went 5-4 against the A’s this year with a 52-39 advantage in runs scored, marking the first time since 2000 Oakland lost the season series. Detroit was one of four AL clubs the A’s had losing records against.

“Them being here is not an accident,” A’s manager Ken Macha said. “They’re pretty darn good. They deserve to be here. Our guys feel good about themselves, and they should. We won the division and played three great games against Minnesota.”

This Detroit team, with eight active holdovers from the awful ’03 squad, has shed the loser label that followed the club everywhere in the Motor City and elsewhere. Even walks down the street would bring insults, third baseman Brandon Inge recalled.

“Once you have a season like that, there’s really only one place to go. You can’t get much worse than that,” Inge said. “That season to a lot of us doesn’t even exist. I feel like we’ve come back and accomplished much more than what that season kind of gave us a reputation for.”

AP-ES-10-10-06 0233EDT

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