Sonny Gray is a bulldog with an angry curveball and a fastball with a firmness that is matched by his will. Oakland manager Bob Melvin made the right decision to choose stuff over experience when he decided to start Gray, 23, instead of Bartolo Colon, 40, in American League Division Series Game 5 tonight against Detroit. But understand this: The kid is being put into an extremely difficult spot that will test his strength and the weight of history.
Gray never pitched a sixth month of pro baseball until this year, and now he is throwing in his seventh month. After throwing 111 pitches in Game 2 in which every pitch was a stress pitch -- he left after eight innings in a scoreless game -- now he has to come back again on normal rest and do it again.
Then there is this: Gray threw 152 innings last year. He has blown by that number this year, having thrown 190 1/3 innings and counting.
If you don't think this assignment is a taxing one physically and mentally you didn't watch fellow 23-year-old, 2011-draftee Gerrit Cole pitch last night for Pittsburgh in NLDS Game 5. Cole also threw a gem in his first start, but was off his game just enough last night to lose.
In the second inning, after jumping ahead of St. Louis' Jon Jay 1-and-2, he lost the batter and walked him. Then, pitching out of the stretch for the first time in the game, he hung a breaking ball to David Freese, who smashed it for a two-run homer. One moment you have two outs and the bases empty and the next you are down 2-0 to Adam Wainwright. Game over. The margin of error is that thin.
Wait. There's more. Cole was the 12th pitcher age 25-and-under to start Game 5 of a Division Series. Those kid pitchers are 1-10 with a 4.91 ERA. (The only win was by 21-year-old Jaret Wright for the 1997 Indians.) Gray will become the 13th young gun to give it a try.
It is hard to pitch a seventh month for the first time. It is hard to stay sharp when you've blown past your professional innings high by 38 1/3 innings. It is hard to find your stuff again against the same team a second time in a series with your entire season resting on that game. It is hard to win that game when you have been pushed that hard that young.
Don't discount Gray pitching well tonight. But, no matter how it turns out, appreciate the difficulty of what he is being asked to do.
2. Wainwright reaches new heights
Adam Wainwright is becoming the Curt Schilling of his generation: a workhorse ace who has become a dependable stopper in the postseason. Wainwright threw his first postseason complete game last night in what was such a gem of pitching craftsmanship that he threw 33 balls to 33 batters.
Wainwright has pitched in 15 postseason games. The Cardinals have won 12 of them. He is 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA and four saves. He has recorded the last out of four postseason series.
Because Pittsburgh extended St. Louis to five games in the NLDS, Wainwright will not be able to pitch in the NLCS until Game 3. That would also put him in line to start a potential Game 7, unless manager Mike Matheny wants to push him on short rest for a Game 6. Wainwright has never started a regular season or postseason game on three days of rest.
For now, just soak in the beauty of his clinching win last night. In the NL, where you often are forced to hit for your pitcher, what Wainwright did is rarely seen. Since the wild card format began in 1995, only two other pitchers ever won an NLDS Game 5 with a complete game: teammate Chris Carpenter (2011 Cardinals) and Schilling (2001 Diamondbacks).
3. The case for a best-of-five LCS
Baseball can restore some of the luster that has been lost from the World Series by returning the League Championship Series to a best-of-five format. It adds more urgency to the LCS, reduces the inventory of non-decisive playoff games that wear down audiences, and elevates the World Series to the unique series it should be.
That said, here are observations and notes with one more game before we move to best-of-seven play:
• The Pirates were a great story all season and it was fun to see Pittsburgh get excited about baseball again. But the team clearly needs to find more offense for next season. Pittsburgh won this season with pitching, defense, a pitching-friendly ballpark and enormous luck in close games -- not exactly a sustainable model. With two chances to clinch the NLDS, the lack of enough bats doomed the Pirates. In those two games they scored two runs and batted .153.
• The Cardinals have faced elimination nine times over the past three postseasons. They are 8-1 in those games. That is some crazy clutch play. But this might be even more difficult to do: in 13 postseason series from 1996-2000, the Yankees faced only two elimination games. They were 1-1 in those games.
• Justin Verlander in his past five starts at the O.com Coliseum: 4-0 with a 0.49 ERA (two earned runs in 37 innings).
• Just a reminder about the importance of scoring first: teams that get on the board first this postseason are winning 68 percent of the time (13-6).
• Do-or-die games -- when both teams face elimination -- simply are not like other postseason games. Lucky for us we are getting more of such gifts. Oakland and Detroit give us our 15th "October Madness" game in just the past three years. We saw only 12 such games in the previous eight years. (Thank you, Wild Card games.)
• Keep these trends in mind when you enjoy another win-or-go-home game. In do-or-die games since 2009, home teams are 6-9 (.400 winning percentage) and teams scoring first are 11-4 (.733).
• Matt Carpenter of St. Louis has reached base in only seven of his past 38 plate appearances, but he's not changing his patient approach at the plate. Carpenter took the first and second pitch in 15 of his 21 plate appearances in the NLDS.
• Can Detroit possibly win a five-game series with no extra base hits from Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder? Thus far the three key Detroit hitters have nothing but singles (10 of them) in 45 at-bats. They have combined for one RBI.