On the day the Oakland Athletics placed cornerstone third baseman Eric Chavez on the disabled list, June 4, they were in third place in the American League West, 31/2 games out of first place. But they sent Tim Hudson to the mound the next day. Two days after that, they threw Mark Mulder, and the day after that, Barry Zito.

The A's won all three games, plus the one in between, started by Mark Redman. And suddenly, following a three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds this week by a combined score of 40-16, the A's found themselves, as they entered yesterday, back in first place for the first time since April 23.

Hudson, Zito and Mulder -- the Big Three -- can erase most any sin, hardship or blunder.

Lose Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada to free agency? Lose Chavez to injury? Make a bad signing by trying to turn Arthur Rhodes into a closer? The Big Three will bail you out.

As a result, the AL West race is shaping up as the most entertaining in baseball, with the A's set to spend the rest of the summer battling the surprising Texas Rangers and injury-plagued Anaheim Angels, whom the A's leapfrogged this past week.

With the Big Three in tow, it is hard not to like the A's chances of making a fifth straight postseason appearance.

But unlike their richer division rivals, the A's are caught in a perpetual cycle of economics-driven downsizing, in which they develop young players who eventually leave for more money, forcing the team to restock with new, young players.

A couple of years ago, it became apparent that the A's, because of finances, would have to choose between Tejada and Chavez. They chose Chavez.

And now, a similar choice may be facing General Manager Billy Beane and his underlings regarding Hudson, Mulder and Zito. With each of the Big Three signed through 2005 (the A's hold club options for 2006 on Mulder and Zito), the team may have to choose which one(s) to attempt to sign to a contract extension this winter.

There are rumblings that Zito -- who, with a 4-3 record and 4.74 ERA this season, on top of a 14-12 mark a year ago, is widely considered the clear number three in the Big Three -- may be available in this summer's trade market, which is glaringly thin in premium pitching.

One rival executive, in fact, said this week that Zito could be had -- "for the moon and the stars." Think George Steinbrenner wouldn't want to put Zito in pinstripes, especially now that Kevin Brown is dealing with a balky back?

Most likely, Beane will hold on to Zito -- and all his other key pieces -- then revisit the trade idea over the winter. In the meantime, the A's have 12 games left this season against the Angels, and 13 against the Rangers, and Chavez could be back by late July.

R. Alomar Reflects

Robby Alomar, who returned to Baltimore for the first time since 2001 this week as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, appears not to have aged a day since departing the Orioles as a free agent after the 1998 season.

But the years have taken a toll on the 12-time all-star second baseman, who has not batted higher than .266 in any of the last three seasons and who is on the disabled list with a broken hand.

That might explain why Alomar was sounding wistful and nostalgic as he sat in the visitor's clubhouse at Camden Yards on Thursday afternoon.

"Time goes quick," he said. "You have to enjoy this game. When I was here, I had a great time. Those were some of the best years I've had in the game. I remember like it was yesterday."

When he was hit by a Ben Sheets fastball and broke his hand on April 20, Alomar sounded like a man who was almost ready to hang up his spikes. But seven weeks into his rehab, with a return date targeted for later this month, he played down those thoughts.

"You do have to realize that it is going to come to an end some day," he said. "But I think I can still play the game of baseball."

Indians' Bullpen Woes

Anyone who thinks the Orioles' bullpen is as bad as it gets should get a whiff of the Cleveland Indians'. The combined record of Indians relievers? 13-17. Their ERA? Over 5. Their save percentage? 8 of 22.

Their latest explosion came Tuesday, when Jose Jimenez gave up a pair of two-out homers to blow a ninth-inning lead against Florida. Indians relievers have allowed 35 homers this season.

Jimenez is the third closer the team has tried this season (or fourth, if you include Bob Wickman, who was injured in spring training). . . .

Speaking of closer issues, the Chicago White Sox finally pulled the plug on Billy Koch, who never met a save situation recently that he couldn't foul up.

The Sox will go with a committee that includes Cliff Politte, Damaso Marte and Shingo Takatsu, as well as Koch.

"I gave Koch the best opportunity he can have," Manager Ozzie Guillen told reporters. "I put all my faith in him. But obviously, it's not working right now." . . .

The Angels are about to get well in a hurry. Tim Salmon (knee) was activated Tuesday. Garret Anderson (back) was activated Thursday. And Darin Erstad (hamstring) is expected back in a couple of days. Troy Glaus (shoulder), Troy Percival (elbow) and Raul Mondesi (quadriceps) remain out. . . .

Sidney Ponson is not the only weight-challenged, free agent-signee ace pitcher struggling to justify his contract. Anaheim's Bartolo Colon, is lugging around a 6.24 ERA. Compared with Colon's four-year, $51 million contract, the Orioles are getting off cheap with Ponson (three years, $22.5 million).

Starting pitchers, from top, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito have helped A's stay in contention for a fifth consecutive postseason appearance.