Baseball: Oakland in control of their destiny

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THE OAKLAND Athletics will try again tonight to clinch their fourth divisional championship in five years when they welcome Jose Canseco and the Texas Rangers for the first time since they packed off the Cuban slugger to the Lone Star state at the end of August.

The A's have been guaranteed at least a share of the American League West title since Friday night, but after suffering a three- game sweep at the hands of the charging Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend, Oakland have still to convince the mathematicians that Minnesota are incapable of overhauling them. A single Oakland victory or a single defeat for the Twins from the final six games are all that the Athletics require to gain a play-off berth against the winners of the AL East.

Oakland find themselves in the enviable position of being able to influence who they meet in the play-offs. The Brewers, at present the hottest team in baseball, follow Texas to California on Friday for the final series of the season. They will probably need to sweep the A's again to snatch the AL East title from the Toronto Blue Jays, who have recently suffered their customary late-season attack of the yips.

That ought to give Oakland every incentive to fight to the last out of the season. They would much prefer to face Toronto's faltering bats rather than Milwaukee's presently unhittable pitching for a place in the World Series. After all, they destroyed the Blue Jays 4-1 as recently as the 1990 play-offs, so the SkyDome will hold no terrors for them.

Whatever happens in October, Oakland's dominance of their division in a season when many of their biggest names have been bit hard by injuries is a tribute to the coaching performance of their manager, Tony La Russa.

La Russa did get big contributions from some of his established stars like first baseman Mark McGwire, who came back from a disastrous 1991, when he hit .201, to lead the home-run race with 40 over the wall. And Dennis Eckersley has produced his finest season as a closing pitcher with 51 saves at the last count.

But for the rest the manager has been forced to call on no fewer than 40 players, including 18 pitchers, as one name after another has dropped out of the starting line- up. The weekend sweep by Milwaukee symbolised Oakland's stop-start season, following as it did a 10-game winning streak by the A's, the sixth time this season they have won at least five in a row.

Now La Russa must hope his team rediscover the art of winning before the play-offs start on 7 October.