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THE WORLD SERIES : OAKLAND ATHLETICS vs. LOS ANGELES DODGERS : Dodgers Selling Chances Short; A’s Don’t Buy It

Times Staff Writer

Instead of disputing popular opinion, the Dodgers embrace the idea that they are hopelessly overmatched against the Oakland Athletics in the 85th World Series, that they are little more than interlopers in what should be a matchup of baseball’s best teams.

Such a belief, regardless of its validity, is just what the Dodgers wanted to hear. They say that similar talk before, during and even after the National League championship series helped them defeat the heavily favored New York Mets.

And so, although they seem to have less talent than the A’s in almost every area, the Dodgers will take strong pitching, an underdog mentality and the element of surprise onto the Dodger Stadium field at 5:30 p.m. today and hope that somehow, another epic upset can happen.

“If I had my choice of being the overwhelming favorite or the slight underdog, I’ll take the underdog any day,” said rookie right-hander Tim Belcher, who will face A’s 21-game winner Dave Stewart in Game 1. “We seem to do well in that role.”

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In the best-of-seven series, the Dodgers will have to be at their best to challenge a powerful Oakland team that won 104 regular-season games and has been unofficially crowned as baseball’s best.

But one player who doesn’t figure to be at his best tonight, if he plays at all, is Dodger left fielder Kirk Gibson, who injured his right knee sliding into second base in Game 7 of the playoffs.

That news, along with all they have heard about the offensive exploits of Jose Canseco (42 home runs, 40 stolen bases), Mark McGwire (merely 32 home runs and 99 runs batted in) and the pitching strength of Stewart, Bob Welch and reliever Dennis Eckersley, has the Dodgers grasping at their reliable underdog posture.

“I don’t think anyone is going to fall over in their seat if Oakland beats us,” Belcher said. “But if we beat them, whether it takes 7 games or 7 years, people will be very, very surprised. So where’s the pressure there?”

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As much as the Dodgers would like to cultivate that no-one-expects-us-to-be-here belief, the A’s apparently don’t buy it. Except for Don Baylor, who criticized Dodger relief pitcher Jay Howell Thursday, the A’s have been unfailingly polite when discussing the Dodgers.

Oakland Manager Tony La Russa said he wanted to shatter the Dodgers’ underdog image before it gave them any more impetus.

“I’m not buying that,” La Russa said. “There’s pressure on both clubs. We heard the comments about the Dodgers being underdogs and all that, but we know how good we are, and we know how good the Dodgers are.”

La Russa, in fact, became annoyed when asked whether Baylor’s comments concerning Howell were representative of his team’s feelings.

“Let’s understand that it’s the manager who speaks for the club, not the players,” La Russa said. “In my view, what was said was total bull. We know how good Jay Howell is, and our strategy is to try to keep him out of the game.

“Comments like (Baylor’s) bother me, as do the ones about whether we prefer to play the Mets. We believe in playing, not talking. Those comments do not reflect my or my team’s thinking about the Dodgers, especially not Jay Howell.”

Perhaps La Russa fears that Baylor’s comments about Howell’s ability to handle pressure, as well as earlier comments by Stewart and Baylor, will make the Dodgers indignant, as did David Cone’s infamous newspaper column and Howell’s suspension during the playoffs.

It certainly seemed to fire up a few of the Dodgers during Friday afternoon’s workout at Dodger Stadium.

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Manager Tom Lasorda shook his head and said with a mixture of satisfaction and astonishment: “They keep popping off about us, don’t they?”

Dodger utility player Mickey Hatcher said: “They (the A’s) can say what they want. But if they’re going to say it, they better win. The best thing would be to keep your mouth shut. David Cone found that out when he popped off.”

But as Baylor told the San Jose Mercury News Thursday, inflammatory statements are “all (the Dodgers) have to play on.”

Certainly, Oakland has to be considered a big favorite in this Series, a rematch of 1974. The A’s won that one in 5 games, which is about as long as many figure the Dodgers to last in this one.

While the Dodgers struggled to hold off rivals in a mediocre National League West race, the A’s won the American League West by 13 games. While the Dodgers seemed to need every fiber in Orel Hershiser’s right arm and all their offensive ingenuity to oust the Mets in the playoffs, the A’s dismantled the Boston Red Sox in 4 games.

And while the Dodgers hit just .214 and had a staff earned-run average of 3.32 against the Mets, the A’s hit .299 and had an ERA of 2 in their sweep of the Red Sox.

What we have here, it seems, is a mismatch. But, of course, the Dodgers welcome that news.

Still, the Dodgers may not be able to capitalize on their underdog status because the A’s know them too well.

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Four Dodger players--Belcher, Howell, shortstop Alfredo Griffin and utility outfielder Mike Davis--played with the A’s or their triple-A affiliate in Tacoma last season. Three current A’s--pitchers Bob Welch, Rick Honeycutt and Stewart--are former Dodgers.

Familiarity may breed contempt in some, but it’s more like content with these teams. Both the Dodgers and A’s credit the trades the clubs made with each other as a reason for their success this season. The only difference, it seems, is that the Dodgers did it to rebuild, the A’s to refine.

“Both teams had to take risks to make the changes,” said Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president. “As I recall, the Belcher-for-Honeycutt trade took place over a month. And there was a time when Sandy (Alderson, the A’s vice president) didn’t want to make it.”

There may be times now when Alderson wishes he had kept Belcher. Although Honeycutt had 7 saves during the season and pitched 2 scoreless innings in the playoffs as a middle reliever, Belcher has turned into a quality starter.

There is an odd symmetry to tonight’s matchup between Stewart and Belcher.

Belcher, who will turn 27 next week, languished in Oakland’s farm system for 4 seasons, wondering whether he would ever live up to the promise of being the first player selected in the 1984 amateur draft. He had a hard but wild fastball and a curveball that did everything but curve. But then came the trade to the Dodgers in September 1987.

Stewart had been traded from the Dodgers to the Texas Rangers in 1983 for Honeycutt and then bounced to the Philadelphia Phillies before being released during the 1986 season. But then the A’s signed him in May 1986.

Both pitchers now find themselves starters in Game 1 of the World Series, probably with the opposite team for which they once thought they would pitch.

Both say the revenge motive has not been on their minds, but traces of bitterness can be detected.

“I’ve never attempted to carry out a vendetta on the A’s for giving up on me,” Belcher said. “They did what they thought they had to do. They never gave me a shot in the big leagues, but I never gave them a reason to believe I’d change.”

Belcher credits his emergence to the development of a split-fingered pitch, a curveball and large doses of confidence. It has translated into 12 victories during his rookie season and 2 victories in the playoffs.

“It’s probably painfully obvious (to the A’s) that I’m not the same pitcher I was with them,” Belcher said. “If I was (the same as now), I’d be over there in that the other dugout.”

The development of a forkball is the reason for Stewart’s emergence. He said he talked to the Dodgers after Philadelphia released him but was rebuffed by Lasorda.

“I talked to Tommy in his office. We had a conversation, and he gave me a long list of pitchers (in the Dodger organization) waiting to get a chance in the big leagues,” Stewart said. “So, he referred me to (then-vice president) Al Campanis.”

Campanis, apparently, showed Stewart the door, and that opened the door for a career with the A’s.

Stewart is only the second pitcher in Oakland history to win at least 20 games in consecutive seasons. In the playoffs, he gave up 1 earned run in 6 innings but did not get a decision in Game 1, and he allowed 1 earned run in 7 innings to win Game 4.

It doesn’t figure that Stewart will be tested any more by the Dodger offense, which produced just 3 home runs in the Met series. But Stewart says he still must pitch carefully to selected Dodgers, especially Gibson and leadoff hitter Steve Sax.

“They do have dangerous hitters, like Sax,” Stewart said. “Sax is dangerous if you allow him to get on base. Steve is definitely a catalyst. He’s capable of stealing bases. He makes pitchers edgy. It’s important to keep him off base.”

Belcher, meanwhile, will have far more worries with the A’s offense, which finished fourth in the American League in average and second in home runs this season. Belcher says he knows all about Canseco, having played with him in the minor leagues, and he also said he will be aware of McGwire and Dave Henderson (24 home runs, 94 RBIs), Carney Lansford (7 and 57) and Dave Parker (12 and 55).

“You have to face the fact that they have awesome power,” Belcher said. “They hit a lot of home runs and score a lot of runs. But that doesn’t affect me one way or the other, other than I can’t let it happen early. It’s important to put some zeros on the board. I thought that the key in our series with the Mets was that we scored before they did in 6 of the 7 games.”

Many are saying that this series won’t go 7 games, that despite the Dodgers’ pitching trifecta of Hershiser, Belcher and John Tudor, they won’t make it to late next week.

All of which pleases the Dodgers. But it rankles La Russa, who watched the Mets self-destruct against the Dodgers and doesn’t want to see it happen to his team.

“I’m not buying that underdog (stuff),” La Russa said. “I know the Dodgers are very strong on the intangibles. But they are going against a team (the A’s) with just as much intangibles and with just as much heart.”

And, seemingly, with considerably more talent.


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