Ever watch a particular at-bat early in the game and know you’re seeing the pivotal moment?

That’s how I felt in the third inning of yesterday’s A’s/Red Sox game. Down 5-0 after gift-wrapping four runs in the bottom of the second, the Sox picked up back-to-back doubles and a walk to cut the lead to 5-1 and place two runners aboard with one out. Todd Walker grounded to first, setting up a Barry Zito/Manny Ramirez battle.

This was going to be it. Either the Sox were going to cut the lead to a manageable 5-3, with Ramirez atoning for his brutal misplay of Eric Byrnes‘ second-inning fly ball and Zito displaying the inconsistency that had dogged him throughout the year, or the A’s were going to escape with a four-run lead and having turned back the Sox’s attempt to recover from the second inning.

When Ramirez flied out to left, the game felt over. It was. The Sox picked up just four singles the rest of the way, with Zito abusing every hitter in the lineup by changing speeds and wielding a Shelley Long-after-"Cheers" curveball.

So, really, what do I know? Sox in three? Apparently, the word "eliminated" was dropped from Tuesday’s column, which I’d love to blame on the editors but can’t. The Red Sox, who averaged more than six runs a game during the season, scored five in 21 innings in Oakland, and come home needing to be perfect just to get the right to fly back across the country and hit some more in a place where doubles go to die.

I’m not sure any combination of hitters was going to beat Zito yesterday, but doesn’t Grady Little have to at least try to acknowledge that his #3 and #5 hitters should change against southpaws? Tuesday’s night’s heroics against Ricardo Rincon aside, Walker hit .234/.282/.373 against lefties this year, which is pretty much what he hits against them every year. David Ortiz hit .216/.260/.414, also pretty representative of his career performance. Maybe I put too much stock in platoon differentials, but how do you go into a playoff game you really need to win with those players weighing down the middle of your lineup?

Even if you don’t want to sit the two down, what’s so hard about changing the batting order? The two players are batting ahead of Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller, both of whom hit left-handers and have good OBPs. Get Mueller into the #2 slot, with Garciaparra third, Millar fifth, and sort the remaining four guys any way you like #6 through #9. Todd Walker kept coming up against Barry Zito with runners on base, and each time it was like watching Dakota Fanning debate Ruth Bader Ginsburg on civil liberties.

To blame Little for this defeat, of course, would be to grant the Sox players far too wide a berth. The A’s didn’t take this game; the Sox gave it to them with a second-inning meltdown that was missing only Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda. Ramirez repaid Terrence Long‘s cosmic IOU by turning an Eric Byrnes fly ball into a two-run double, and Walker threw an inning-ending groundout into the East Bay for two more runs. The Sox turned what should have been a one-run inning into a five-run disaster, entirely because they couldn’t make plays on defense. That failing haunted them Wednesday as well, and if their season does end in the next three days, it will be interesting to see whether the blame gets apportioned correctly. The pitching didn’t fail; the defense did.

In yesterday’s late game, you could find a number of the same themes. Andy Pettitte spun a masterpiece, helped along by Ron Gardenhire’s insistence on treating platoon players like everyday ones. The Twins’ defense didn’t make key plays; while the focus will be on LaTroy Hawkins‘ errant throw on Derek Jeter‘s ground ball, don’t forget that on the previous play, Nick Johnson scored from second on a single to left field. There aren’t many left fielders that will happen against, but Shannon Stewart is one of them. If Johnson stops at third, the Hawkins play develops in a completely different fashion.

Because it didn’t, Jason Giambi got yet another chance to be a hero, and this time he cashed it in. Giambi looked terrible again on Wednesday, unable to time anything Brad Radke threw and swinging at a ton of pitches. He looked like a more expensive version of Randall Simon. Fortunately for him, his ground ball off Hawkins found a hole in the drawn-in infield, and perhaps relieved some of the growing pressure on him. I said in chat the other day that he was the second-most important player in the postseason, and I stand by that; the Yankee offense doesn’t work with a lousy Giambi in the middle of it, and Giambi has been lousy for some time now.

The above sequence was set up by Gardenhire’s decision to remove Radke with one out in the seventh. I’m torn on this one, mostly because I’m not sure what Radke did to get himself removed. I understand the desire to get Hawkins, who was awesome Tuesday afternoon, into the game against two right-handed hitters. Perhaps Gardenhire was concerned that a two-pitch pitcher would have a problem his fourth time through the lineup, and he was vocal after the game about what the long delay before the bottom of the seventh might have done to Radke, although Radke refused to use it as an excuse. (Aside: Gardenhire isn’t wrong; enough with the seventh-inning stretch as patriotic theater already.)

The Yankee defensive range was again on display in this game, as the Twins put a number of balls through the gaping hole around second base. I don’t know how you can watch balls go by Jeter at the rate they do and conclude that he is even an adequate shortstop. I know what the numbers say, and I know that most people in and around the game don’t care. What I don’t know is how their eyes tell them something different than what I see.

Today, the National League takes back the stage. The Giants’ game could get ugly, as Kirk Rueter doesn’t pitch well against right-handed batters or on the road, while the Giants crush lefties, hit well on the road, and are facing a pitcher in Mark Redman who may have little left in the tank. I picked the Giants in four, so we’ll stick with it: 9-4, Jints.

Expect the opposite in Chicago, where the best pitcher of the 1990s faces the best pitcher of the 2000s. (There, I said it.) I expect a pitchers’ duel of epic proportions, as Greg Maddux and Mark Prior put on a pitching clinic. Prior will be just a little better: 2-1, Cubs.

I’m back tomorrow and Sunday with more playoff commentary.