Stellar pitching and late dramatics highlight A's' Game 2 ALDS win
OAKLAND -- Welcome to October. With all due respect to the other teams in the playoffs, Saturday evening in O.Co Coliseum felt like the night the postseason stepped it up a notch. The A's and Tigers engaged in best game of the playoffs so far, the kind of taut, memorable autumn duel that October is supposed to produce. It was the kind of contest, scoreless into the ninth inning, that felt like it could go until sunrise until abruptly, it was over. Stephen Vogt's bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth gave the A's a 1-0 victory in Game 2 of the ALDS and tied the series at one game apiece.
There was only one run, but there were plenty of twists and turns, decisions and storylines to talk about afterwards. There was matchup on the mound, where the A's postseason newbie, Sonny Gray, fearlessly traded zeroes with the Tigers' veteran, former Cy Young winner and MVP Justin Verlander. There was the who-could-have-predicted-it element, with Gray and Vogt -- who were the Sacramento River Cats' battery in Triple-A a few months ago -- being the heroes of the A's most important game of the year.
There was even a mini-flareup that added just the right amount of spice to the proceedings when Detroit's Torii Hunter took exception to a high, tight fastball from Gray in the third, gesturing at him to express his displeasure. That induced the A's raucous sellout crowd to serenade him with a "Torii, Torii" chant on every subsequent at-bat.
It was the kind of game on which a series can turn. Instead of being down 2-0 heading to Detroit for Game 3 on Thursday, the A's are back on equal footing. "It felt like one of those games that was going to be a battle of attrition," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "You just try to stay in the moment and not think about what might happen if you go down 2-0."
No one can say the moment was too big for Gray, the 23-year-old rookie. Melvin chose him to start Game 2 over Oakland's regular No. 2 starter, Jarrod Parker, despite Gray's complete lack of postseason experience, because he felt the rookie would be more comfortable pitching at home. Apparently he was right, because Gray not only matched Verlander pitch for pitch, he outlasted him, going eight scoreless innings and allowing just four hits while striking out nine. Verlander stymied Oakland for seven innings on four hits with 11 strikeouts.
The key for Gray, who admits to being an excitable sort, was harnessing his adrenaline. His puppy-dog enthusiasm shows. In discussing his brief disagreement with Hunter, all he could talk about was how the outfielder was one of his favorite players growing up. "I remember the first time I faced him in spring training this year he hit a line drive that nearly took my head off," Gray said. "He's a great guy."
Said Melvin: "Sonny's not one of these guys who's stone-faced with his emotions. Even Verlander could see that from the other dugout. "He was able to use his angst and energy to his advantage," he said. "With most young guys it works against them."
It helped that Gray was pitching at home, where he had a 1.99 ERA and opponents hit just .200 against him. Having Vogt, who caught him numerous times in the minors, added to his comfort. Warming up in the bullpen before the game, the pair pretended they were back at Sacramento's Raley Field getting ready to pitch to the Fresno Grizzlies. "We just said it's just like a minor league game," Vogt said. "Don't worry about the names on the back of the uniforms."
Vogt gave Gray more tangible help in the fifth inning, when the Tigers put together their best scoring chance. With runners on first and third with one out, Gray struck out Austin Jackson and Vogt threw out Jose Iglesias attempting to steal second for the double play that ended the threat.
The A's had more chances, but Verlander refused to let them break through. He opened the door a crack for the A's when he walked Brandon Moss to open the 7th. Two outs later, Reddick lined a single to right, sending Moss to third, where he slid in millimeters ahead of the tag from third baseman Miguel Cabrera. But Verlander proceeded to put out the fire with gas. On his 117th pitch of the night, he blew a 98 mph fastball past Vogt for a third strike to end the inning.
But Verlander wasn't around for the ninth, when Yoenis Cespedes started things with a single through the left side that Cabrera probably would have reached if he hadn't been guarding the line to prevent doubles. Seth Smith singled to send Cespedes to third, and Albuquerque intentionally walked Josh Reddick to load the bases. Rick Porcello relieved Albuquerque, and Vogt lined a single over shortstop to begin the celebration. "Bases loaded, nobody out, that's the situation you dream about," Vogt said.
A suspenseful postseason pitcher's duel on a warm autumn night is the kind of situation you dream about as well. The A's and Tigers made it come true, and now it really feels like October.