Looking ahead to the playoffs, the Oakland A's wanted to send the Boston Red Sox a message one month ago.

They did it by ending the Red Sox' 10-game winning streak and sweeping a three-game series in Boston."They got a big message by getting swept," said Oakland's Rickey Henderson. "That puts it in their minds that they have to play better against this club.

"I think they know how good we are. They'll probably go back to the drawing board now."

The Red Sox didn't have time to return to any drawing board. They went into a tailspin, losing 15 of 21 games, including eight of 10 on a road swing.

They blew a 61/2-game lead and fell 11/2 games behind Toronto. Then they rallied, winning six of their last eight games to capture their third AL East title in five years on the final day of the regular season.

Now Boston's pick and shovel crew, swept by Oakland in four games in the playoffs two years ago, get another shot at the Athletics' elite cast in the best-of-7 AL playofs starting Saturday night at Fenway Park.

Although Oakland manager Tony LaRussa insisted the law of averages caught up with the Red Sox in the sweep, the A's are confident after beating the Chicago White Sox by nine games in the AL West.

"When we're playing to our level, we feel nobody can beat us," sad Henderson, who hit .516 (16-31) against Boston this season.

"Oakland is a team that knows it will win," says Chicago's Bobby Thigpen, who set a major league record with 57 saves this year. "They play these things with your mind. It's just the way they act. Nothing fazes them."

The Red Sox, who beat the odds in winning the division, insist, though, that past records mean nothing and they're ready to upset the Athletics.

"We're pumped up, and we know we're only one-third of the way to our goal," said Jeff Reardon, who came back from lower back surgery on Aug. 4 to win two games and save three in five appearances down the stretch.

"We know we're the underdogs," said Dwight Evans, winding down his 18th season. "We know our work is cut out for us.

"But it's been like that for us all season. We just know we're the little guys. It's a little like David and Goliath."

Wade Boggs, who finished with 187 hits and fell short of 200 for the first time in eight years, says the Red Sox have "a lot of misfits with hearts as big as the (52-story) Prudential Building."

Comparative records demand that Oakland, the preseason pick, remain the favorite to win a third consecutive pennant.

The A's had a 103-59 record this year, the Red Sox 88-74. Oakland was 56-28 against the East, Boston 38-46 against the West.

And the A's won eight of 12 games with the Red Sox, including four of six in Boston.

"If you ask me who's the stronger ballclub, we all know the answer is Oakland," said Toronto's Mookie Wilson. "But the stronger ballclub doesn't always win."

Boggs conceded "there are a lot of teams that are better than us on paper," but said:

"When we beat them, they go back to the locker room and say, `How did they beat us?' It was the little things. This is one of the most fundamentally sound teams I've ever been on."

The Athletics have awesome power and pitching. Mark McGwire hit 39 home runs and Jose Canseco 37, although bothered by a bad back much of the season. Rickey Henderson hit .325 with 28 homers - as the leadoff batter.

Right-hander Bob Welch led the majors with a 27-6 record. And Dave Stewart wasn't far behind with 22-11. Dennis Eckersley, once a 20-game winner for Boston, is the anchor in the Oakland bullpen. Eckersley had saves in all four games in the playoff sweep in 1988.

The Red Sox led the league with a .272 average, but hit only 106 homers, topped by Ellis Burks with 21 and Tom Brunansky with 15.

Roger Clemens missed 24 days with shoulder tendinitis in September, but had a 21-6 record. Mike Boddicker was 17-8. Reardon had 21 saves, and no Boston pitcher lost 10 games, an unusual statistic.

Clemens, sent ahead to Toronto to rest for a possible playoff, missed the Red Sox' dramatic clincher in a 3-1 victory over the White Sox Wednesday night.

"It was just something that had to be done," Clemens said on his return Thursday. "I hope I'll be celebrating with the guys two more times this year."

Stewart and Clemens will renew an old rivalry in the series opener. Stewart is 6-1 lifetime against the two-time Cy Young Award winner. Clemens' lone victory was in 1984, when Stewart was with Texas.

The second game of the series will be played in Boston Sunday night, with the next three scheduled for Oakland next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If necessary, the sixth and seventh games would be played in Boston on Oct. 13 and 14.