Tigers at A's
Series: ALDS Game 4, Tigers lead 2-1
Time: 9:30 PM ET
Starters: Max Scherzer (16-7, 3.74 ERA) vs. A.J. Griffin (7-1, 3.06 ERA)
Facing elimination on Tuesday night, the A's beat the Tigers 2-0 behind a sterling six-inning effort from Brett Anderson in his first appearance following a 19-day layoff due to an oblique strain. They still need one more win to force a decisive fifth game, and once again, they'll turn to a pitcher who didn't join the team until the middle of the season.
A.J. Griffin, a 24-year-old righty, began the year in the minors, excelling at both Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento before making his major league debut on June 24. The A's won 12 of his 15 starts, including the one that decided the AL West flag on Oct. 3, and Griffin made quality starts in 60 percent of his turns. The rookie showed some wear down the stretch,though, particularly after surpassing last year's total of 160 2/3 innings. Between the majors and the minors, he's at 184 1/3 now despite missing four weeks in August with a shoulder strain, and has just one start of at least five innings in his last four turns, a span during which he's been roughed up for 15 runs and five homers in 17 1/3 innings. Ominously enough, that stretch began with his Sept. 18 start against the Tigers in Detroit; he struggled to get ahead of hitters early in the count and was tagged for homers by Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, and exited after yielding five runs in 4 2/3 innings. Detroit's offense hasn't clicked to the same extent thus far in this series, scoring eight runs in three games on .234/.284/.309 hitting, with 28 strikeouts and just four unintentional walks. Most notably, Fielder is 1-for-12, and Cabrera is 4-for-12 with a pair of doubles, but neither has an RBI in the series.
Griffin doesn't have exceptional velocity, averaging 90.4 mph with his four-seam fastball, but he combines very good control (2.1 BB/9) with the ability to miss bats (7.0 K/9). He mixes in a cutter and a curve against righties, and a curve and a changeup against lefties, showing virtually no platoon split and generating a ton of popups. Via the batted ball data at FanGraphs, his 16.3 percent infield fly rate ranked sixth in the majors among pitchers with at least 80 innings, a trait that persisted even when he was away from the Coliseum's spacious foul territory.
Scherzer comes into the game on the heels of a breakout season. The 28-year-old righty struck out more hitters than any pitcher in the majors besides teammate Justin Verlander, and his 11.1 strikeouts per nine led all starters who qualified for the ERA title. Even so, the Tigers have at least some cause for concern, as Scherzer battled shoulder fatigue in September, skipping a turn and throwing just 11 innings over three starts after Sept. 12. The pitcher declared himself "at 100 percent" after his last bullpen session, with the ankle he twisted during the team's clinching celebration no longer a concern, either. Scherzer relies heavily on a four-seam fastball that averages 95.0 mph, throwing it 60 percent of time. Against righties, he complements that with a slider, and more rarely a changeup; the latter predominates as his secondary pitch against lefties. He was hit relatively hard by them this year (.292/.366/.465, compared to .201/.244/.343 against righties), a stat that rates as a concern against a lineup where Oakland manager Bob Melvin likes to platoon; lefty first baseman Brandon Moss is just 1-for-10 with five strikeouts in this series, and while lefty designated hitter Seth Smith is just 1-for-8 with a pair of walks, he did hit a huge solo homer on Tuesday night. The A's are hitting just .198/.291/.308 as a team, but they've outwalked the Tigers 10-5, and outhomered them 3-1 despite their low batting average. That's not unlike their performance all year long, when they ranked 13th in the league in batting average (.238) but fifth in isolated power (.166), sixth in homers (195) and fourth in walk rate (8.9 percent). The daunting possibility of facing Verlander in Game 5 awaits them, but given the choice, the A's will take that instead of having their storybook season end tonight.