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Oakland levels the series

by Matt Smith

The Oakland Athletics bounced back from a tough opening day loss to beat the Boston Red Sox 5-1 today, securing a 1-1 split from the two-game series in Tokyo, Japan.

The Red Sox’s formidable batting lineup was shut down by A’s starter Rich Harden in a performance that his team will hope is a sign of things to come in ’08. The righty has been the cause of much frustration over the last two seasons within the Oakland organization. Despite having Cy Young calibre talent, Harden has been unable to stay healthy, starting just thirteen games combined in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. In his first outing of 2008 he pitched six strong innings, striking out nine and giving up just one earned run. That came at the hands of a solo home run by the red hot Manny Ramirez, who has started the season 3-9 with two doubles, a home run and five RBIs.

Following their opening day victory, the Red Sox made one change to their starting lineup as Coco Crisp replaced Jacoby Ellsbury in centrefield. For the A’s, Jack Cust was benched in response to his four-strikeout performance on Tuesday. Veteran Mike Sweeney took Cust’s place as the DH and Chris Denorfia made his Oakland debut in centrefield, replacing the A’s other Sweeney, Ryan.

Jon Lester was on the mound for Boston and, while he was far from terrible, he failed to give the Red Sox the start they were hoping for. Lester gave up four earned runs in four innings of work, with the big blow being delivered by Emil Brown. The left fielder was the subject of much scorn after his base-running blunder ran the A’s out of a possible come back in game one, yet he made amends for his mistake by hitting a three-run homer in the bottom of the third inning in this game.

From that point onwards, the Red Sox never really threatened to put the A’s under the sort of pressure that turned the first game in their favour. David Ortiz in particular continued his slow start at the plate, going hitless to increase his 0-4 start to 0-7 .

Oakland was able to tack on an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth when Jeff Fiorentino singled home young catcher Kurt Suzuki, who had reached base via his second double of the game. This gave the A’s a four-run cushion heading into the top of the ninth, which was more than welcome after Huston Street’s capitulation on Tuesday. Street was mercifully unavailable today after throwing two innings in that game, so it was left to former Red Sox reliever Alan Embree to get the final three outs to secure Oakland’s first win of the 2008 season.

Although Oakland may feel that they let a chance to begin 2-0 go begging, both sides will settle for a 1-1 start to the season on a road trip out of the ordinary. However, the real impact of this visit to Japan on the two teams may not be seen for another week or so. After a long flight home, the Red Sox and the A’s will briefly return to Spring Training mode before continuing their series at the beginning of next week with two games in Oakland. Boston will then have to travel to Toronto for a three-game series before they finally return to New England on 8 April. The journey could take its toll on the defending champs as they bid to made it three titles in five years.

For the fans, it has been a great way to start the 2008 season. Both games were very competitive and the spectacle of seeing these two major league teams playing regular season games in Japan was something special. We have to wait until Sunday night before the next MLB game takes place, the Braves face the Nationals at the opening of the new stadium in Washington, and the wait will seem like an eternity. The MLB season proper cannot begin soon enough.

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