Three weeks ago, it appeared little could get the Oakland A's back in the pennant race. But the play of shortstop Alfredo Griffin has proved otherwise.
The A's have won seven straight games and 11 of their last 12. With a sweep of division-leading California in a four-game series that began Monday, Oakland could move within 6 1/2 games of first place in the American League West.
During the recent streak, Griffin has been outstanding.
On Saturday against Toronto, left fielder Jose Canseco stumbled on Ernie Whitt's fly ball with two out and two runners on. Griffin raced back from shortstop for a spectacular over-the-back catch to end the inning. Later, he robbed George Bell of an apparent single up the middle. The plays helped preserve Oakland's 2-0 victory.
On Sunday, the score was 0-0 in the 15th inning with two men on and two out. Griffin backpedaled into left field on a bloop by Toronto's Rick Leach. He lunged and caught the ball to kill the threat. Oakland won, 1-0, in the bottom of the inning when Griffin drew a bases-loaded walk off Stan Clarke.
"Alfredo's a free swinger, but he's also a very intelligent player," said A's manager Tony LaRussa, who was hired nearly a month ago. "It took a real pro to get up there in that situation and have the patience to hold back for a couple pitches and see what developed."
However, Griffin downplays his effort.
"I didn't feel any pressure up there," the 29-year-old Dominican said. "This is not the World Series. I just wanted to get out of here. We had played 15 innings and that's enough."
Griffin said the improved play of the A's makes sense to him.
"People keep saying to me aren't you surprised how well you guys are doing," he said. "I'm not. I've known all along we had good players and should be playing better than we had."
He said the tightened defense has made the biggest difference.
"You need good defense to win games," Griffin said. "If you're defense is good you'll always have a chance to win a game."
The shortstop also credited the pitchers with improving the defense.
"Our pitchers have been pitching a lot quicker lately," Griffin said. "That helps the defense a great deal. You don't get a chance to get back on your heels and get lazy. When the pitcher is throwing quickly, you are able to stay on your toes."
Entering Sunday's game, Griffin was 10-for-32 over his last nine games. For the year, he is hitting .288 with two homers, 31 RBI, 42 runs and 20 stolen bases.
"He's been looking unbelievable," LaRussa said. "The guy's range--left, right, back--is amazing. He's a professional in every sense of the word."
Griffin says he is not bothered by the attention given such shortstops as Ozzie Smith of St. Louis Ozzie or Garry Templeton of San Diego.
"I never think about it," he said. "I only put one thing in my mind to play the best I can and not worry about what anyone else is doing."