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Tigers at A's
Start time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Series: Tied 2-2
When Justin Verlander and A's rookie Sonny Gray faced off in Game 2 of this series, the result was what remains the best pitchers' duel of this year's playoffs. Neither man allowed a run or an extra-base hit. Verlander surrendered just five baserunners in seven innings and struck out 11. Gray yielded only six baserunners in eight innings and struck out nine. A mere three men reached third base all game. The first Athletic to do so got there with two outs in the seventh, and the second wound up scoring the game's only run on a walkoff single by Stephen Vogt in the bottom of the ninth.
Gray's performance in that game is what convinced A's manager Bob Melvin to choose him over Game 1 starter Bartolo Colon for this assignment. Colon went 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA in the regular season and recovered from a three-run first inning in Game 1 to give the A's five scoreless frames and a quality start, his fifth in a row dating back to the regular season. Gray's Game 2 start, by comparison, was just his second quality start in his last five turns and resulted in his highest pitch count (111) since Aug. 15.
With both teams facing elimination, there's a very good chance that we could see Colon early in this game if Gray falters. The Tigers, however, do not have luxury of turning to their Game 1 starter in relief because they used Max Scherzer for two innings and 47 pitches in Game 4. Then again, they are less likely to need the tandem starter, as Verlander enters this game with active streaks of 20 scoreless innings, five quality starts and three straight starts with a double-digit strikeout total.
In fact, there's reason to believe that, after a down regular season, Verlander is back to being the pitcher he was in 2011 and '12. For one thing, he has regained the velocity he appeared to have lost earlier in the year. Per Brooks Baseball, his average fastball in September was 95.63 miles per hour compared to 95.97 last September and 92.69 in April. Also, after walking 3.5 men per nine innings through the end of July this year, he has walked just 2.3 per nine in August and September, an exact match for his walk rate last season.
That's bad news for Oakland. In this exact same situation one day shy of a year ago -- Game 5 of the Division Series in Oakland on Oct. 11, 2012 -- Verlander shut out the A's on four hits and a walk while striking out 11 (the exact same totals as his Game 2 start save for the innings) as Detroit won 2-0 and sent the A's home for the winter. Between that series and this one, Verlander has held Oakland to one run over 23 innings in three Division Series starts while striking out 33 men against six walks and 11 hits (that's a 0.74 WHIP and 12.9 K/9). The only run he has allowed in those 23 innings came on a solo home run by the first batter he faced in Game 1 last year (Coco Crisp), meaning that, in addition to his current 20-inning scoreless streak, Verlander has not allowed a run in his last 22 innings against the A's in Division Series play.
It was an incredible accomplishment for the 23-year-old Gray, in just his 13th major league start, to negate Verlander and help the A's win Game 2, but that is unlikely to happen again, particularly given that Detroit had never faced Gray prior to Game 2, but now gets its second look at him in five days.
After scoring in just two innings in the first three games of this series, the Tigers broke out for eight runs in Game 4, and the men leading the way were Jhonny Peralta, who didn't appear in Games 1 or 2, and Victor Martinez, who, among the eight men to start every game of this series for Detroit, has been far and away the team's most productive hitter. Martinez is 6-for-16 in this series with two doubles, a home run and four runs scored. Peralta, after two starts that should guarantee he's back out there again in Game 5 (even though Don Kelly went 2-for-3 off Gray in Game 2), is 3-for-8 with a double, a homer and five RBIs. Prince Fielder and the hobbled Miguel Cabrera, meanwhile, are still without a walk or an extra-base hit in this series.
For the A's, Crisp is 7-for-14 with two doubles, a triple, three walks and four runs scored, surpassing Yoenis Cespedes as Oakland's most productive hitter in the ALDS. Then again, Crisp has gone 0-for-12 against Verlander since that Game 1 home run a year ago. Seth Smith, who has started the last three games at designated hitter after sitting out this year's Game 1, is 5-for-12 with a home run and had one of the four hits off Verlander in Game 2, as well as the single that put the winning run in scoring position in the ninth inning that night.
Other than Scherzer, no reliever on either team threw more than Tiger closer Joaquin Benoit's 26 pitches in Game 4, so, with a day of rest, all should be fully available for this game.
After a slow start, the Division Series round couldn't get a more compelling ending than this matchup of an elite veteran ace and an emerging young prospect, echoing Wednesday night's NLDS finale between the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and the Pirates' Gerrit Cole that was won by St. Louis. It's a fitting finale, as well, given that it is a rematch of last year's Game 5 in Oakland and features last year's American League pennant winners, the Tigers. This is the third time the two teams have met in a best-of-five series, and all three have now gone the full five games. The A's won the 1972 American League Championship Series best remembered for Bert Campaneris throwing his bat at Detroit pitcher Lerrin LaGrow and Reggie Jackson tearing his hamstring on a steal of home in Game 5. The Tigers won last year in a series best remembered for Verlander's dominance. How will this series be remembered? We'll soon find out.