Which A’s team will show up?

The perceived advantage the A’s had with their starting rotation has disappeared, which could doom their chances of advancing past the divisional playoffs.

The A’s chances would be much better if all their starters were pitching at their best. And they could begin the playoffs with a rotation of Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Barry Zito, which would rival the old “Big Three” of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Zito.

Instead, they’ll lead off with Zito in the first game against the Minnesota Twins.

Zito is a good pitcher who will get far more than he’s worth in the upcoming free-agent market. But he’ll have to face Johan Santana, who is the best in the league. And the game will be at the Metrodome, where the A’s have seldomly played well; they were 1-5 there this season.

The No. 2 starter will be Esteban Loaiza. Yikes! Loaizawas signed to be a bottom-of-the-rotation guy, No. 4 or 5, and despite a stellar August, this is still where he belongs. You do not want him pitching a critical game in October. Haren would fit much better here if he were pitching as he did in the first five months of the season, but he hit the wall in September.

Harden, a dominant pitcher when healthy, will probably go in Game 3, at which time the A’s could already be down 2-0. Coming back from elbow surgery, Harden pitched very well in his first two outings, when he was on a 55-pitch count and then 75. On Sunday, he threw 91 pitches and was not sharp, yielding six runs on three hits and six walks. He’ll be allowed to throw up to 110 pitches in his first playoff appearance.

Which Harden will the A’s get in this game? If he’s on his game, Harden could shut down the Twins. But if the A’s have lost the first two games of the series, they would still be battling uphill because the Twins could pitch Santana again in the series.

The one saving grace for the A’s is that the Twins have had their own rotation problems since Francisco Liriano went on the disabled list. They’ll be starting pitchers Boof Bonser, the former Giants’ first-round draft pick, and Brad Radke. These are the kinds of guys the A’s can chew up.

Probably more than any other team in the playoffs, the A’s offense has a split personality, great against mediocre pitchers, often helpless against the best.

Frank Thomas is the only hitter in their lineup who seems able to hit the best pitchers. Thomas is a devastating power hitter, but he is also just a good hitter, period, with a .307 lifetime average. Even with a very slow start this season, he still hit .270.

Thomas can hit any pitcher, but the other A’s hitters are not capable of that.

They’ll light up the mediocre pitchers with double-digit run totals, but they can be shut down by the top pitchers, as the Los Angeles Angels have proved.

Santana is that kind of top pitcher, so the A’s pitchers had better step up big-time in Games 2, 3 and 4. If gets to a fifth game at the Metrdome with Santana on the mound, the A’s will make another first-round exit.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on http://www.GlennDickey.com. You can e-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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