Tigers at A's
Series: ALDS Game 5, series tied 2-2
Time: 9:30 PM ET
Starters: Justin Verlander (17-8, 2.64 ERA) vs. Jarrod Parker (13-8, 3.47 ERA)
Last year, Jose Valverde was virtually infallible as a closer, converting all 52 of his save opportunities in the regular season and the playoffs. This year, he proved more human, blowing five of 40 save opportunities during the regular season, and squandering the chance to turn the Cinderella A's chariot back into a pumpkin. Handed a two-run ninth-inning lead in an elimination game, "Papa Grande" was cut down to size as he surrendered four hits to the six batters he faced, with Seth Smith's two-run double tying the game before he could record an out, and Coco Crisp's single bringing home Smith to send the series to its fifth game.
Will Valverde — and for that matter, Joaquin Benoit, who yielded a huge homer to Josh Reddick in Game 2 — get another chance in this series? The Tigers are in their best possible position to avoid that as they send Justin Verlander to the mound. The 29-year-old ace led the majors with six complete games, while averaging 7 2/3 innings and 114 pitches per start. He threw 121 pitches in Game 1, striking out 11 and holding the A's to just three hits and one run — that via Crisp's leadoff homer — over seven innings. Even so, Oakland's lineup made him work, drawing four walks, and pushing him to throw at least six pitches in nine different plate appearances. Still, it was Verlander's best outing out of nine career postseason turns, and he's going up against a team that he has now held to two runs and 10 hits in 20 innings across three starts this season.
Oakland's hitting performance thus far in the series (.208/.293/.312) still isn't anything to write home about, but it has still got the edges in walks (13-5) and homers (3-2) despite the big bats in the middle of Tigers' lineup; Detroit, by contrast, is hitting .252/.289/.346, but at least did Prince Fielder's slumbering bat awoke in Game 4. Just 1-for-12 in the series coming in — thanks in part to great defensive plays by Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes in Game 3 — Fielder collected two hits including a towering 419-foot homer off A.J. Griffin. Miguel Cabrera went 1-for-4 and is now 5-for-16 in the series, but he's still in search of his first RBI.
Going up against Verlander is the rookie Parker, who held the Tigers to two earned runs in 6 1/3 innings on seven hits and one walk while striking out five in Game 1; three of the hits — doubles by Omar Infante and Austin Jackson, and a solo homer by Alex Avila — were for extra bases, and his own throwing error produced an unearned run. Including his four minor league starts at the beginning of the year, the 23-year-old righty now has a career-high 208 1/3 innings under his belt this year, up from 136 1/3 combined innings last year, but despite that heavy workload, he hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his seven turns — all against contenders — since Aug. 30. Parker works with a four-seamer that averages 93.4 mph, a sinker, a swing-and-miss changeup, and a slider that he uses almost exclusively against righties. He showed a negligible platoon split (31 points of OPS) and while his strikeout and walk rates are unremarkable (6.9 and 3.1 per nine, overall), he ranked second in the league with just 0.5 homers per nine allowed, thanks to his ability to generate groundballs and popups. Home field advantage has been everything in this series thus far, as both teams have taken care of business in their familiar confines, shutting down the out-of-towners and winning one walk-off. Historically speaking, five-game postseason series have been straight-up coin flips in the deciding game, with the home team winning exactly 15 out of 30; in the wild-card era, they've done even worse, winning just seven out of 17 across 16 seasons. That's still a very small sample to draw upon, but given the pitching matchup, it would hardly be a surprise to see the visiting Tigers get the upper hand. Then again, the A's have won eight straight games at home and were 50-31 there during the regular season, tied for the league's second-best record. Perhaps their chariot — or is it a bandwagon? — will keep rolling.