OAKLAND—When catcher Stephen Vogt sat down with Sonny Gray to prepare for the biggest game of their lives, they did not seem to take the whole thing all that seriously. Vogt looked at the menacing lineup of the Detroit Tigers and made a comparison.
Was the it ’27 Yankees? Perhaps the Big Red Machine of the ’80s?
"Actually, the Fresno Grizzlies have a similar lineup; aggressive hitters and things like that," Vogt joked at the post-game press conference.
Comparing Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers to a Triple-A Pacific Coast League foe was a tool, a way to avoid the pressure that claws through the postseason. Players can be eaten alive by the tension or find methods to avoid it. The two rookies found their own little way to fight pressure.
Gray pitched eight scoreless innings against one of the best lineups in baseball, and Vogt ended the game with a walkoff ninth-inning single as the A’s won 1-0 to even the American League Division Series at a game apiece. The series moves to Detroit for two games beginning on Monday.
The two rookies have been working together most of the year, first at Triple-A Sacramento, then in Oakland where they have become critical parts of the Western Division Champions.
"I’ve thrown to him all year," said Gray, 23,the A’s first-round pick in 2011. "We started in Sacramento together and both made it here pretty much at the same time." He said this provided a level of comfort and familiarity.
Gray delivered a stunning performance, blanking the Tigers on four hits while putting up the eight zeros. He struck out nine and walked two, escaping a couple of danger points and mostly dominating the game. And he did it while facing off against a Justin Verlander who seemed fully rejuvenated and back to his past Cy Young-award-winning form. Verlander silenced the A’s on four hits through seven innings while striking out 11.
"I’ve got to give Gray a lot of credit," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "He was everything as advertised: a good live fastball, 94, 95, 93, 96, coupled with an electric curveball. He was terrific."
Before the series, Gray had arduously avoided questions about dealing with the pressure, a smart move for a pitcher facing the challenge of the biggest game of his life. Afterward, the fresh-faced Gray wore a big smile as he contemplated the experience.
"It was very exciting," he said, "and I was really glad to get the opportunity. "Like I said, I knew there was going to be a lot of adrenaline, and how I was able to harness that adrenaline was a big factor in the game.
"Coming out early, I wasn’t as nervous, I wasn’t as amped up as I thought I would be. And it was awesome because I was able to locate my pitches without being too shaky."
He even survived a championship moment of gamesmanship. In the third inning, Gray came inside with a fastball to veteran Torii Hunter. Hunter lifted his hand and gestured toward Gray.
"I was upset," Hunter told the San Francisco Chronicle. "But (I) just tried to see if I can get in his head, but I think I pissed him off—and he pitched his (rear end) off."
The kid’s reaction mixed idolatry with maturity.
"He’s been one of one of my favorite players growing up," Gray said. "He’s a great guy, he’s known as a really great guy. And it got me fired up a little bit. It did. After that, I had a little extra adrenaline, I really did. I was able to still locate the ball, though."
Gray elevated his adrenaline-laced fastballs to 96, striking out Hunter and then Miguel Cabrera to end the inning. The Tigers’ biggest threat came in the fifth when they got runners on first and third with one out and Austin Jackson at bat. Gray struck him out and Vogt made a pinpoint throw to second to catch rookie Jose Iglesias attempting to steal.
"Sonny is usually really quick to the plate, but on that . . . on that particular pitch he was probably as slow to the plate as he was all game," said A’s manager Bob Melvin. "And Stephen got off an unbelievable throw. Sonny was probably about 1.4 (seconds to the plate), and Stephen needed to get a 1.8 down there to get the runner. That was a huge play in the game."
Vogt, who was 23 when he was drafted out of NAIA Azusa Pacific (Calif.), had a night of huge plays. For a 28-year-old who was traded in the spring for cash by the Rays, Vogt has become a big-time performer. And this was the game of his life.
He faced off against Verlander with runners on second and third and two out in the seventh. The mighty Verlander used his full arsenal against Vogt, but the lefty-hitting catcher kept fouling the pitches.
"It was one heck of a battle," Verlander said. "I felt like I was giving him everything I have, and he was putting good swings on everything."
For 10 pitches, the battle continued. At one point, Verlander said he ran out of pitches. Catcher Alex Avila approached the mound. Verlander and Avila put their gloves to their faces and did not speak for a moment. Then Verlander said, "I got nothing." Verlander eventually ended the showdown by striking out Vogt with a fastball up and in. Verlander, who rarely shows emotion, showed plenty after winning the encounter.
But Vogt’s fight had its effect. He ran Verlander’s count to 117 pitches and Leyland decided that was enough. Verlander exited after seven scoreless innings and the fate of the game fell to the bullpen. Gray lasted another inning before handing off to Grant Balfour to pitch the ninth.
Al Albuquerque started the bottom of the ninth for the Tigers and gave up a single to Yoenis Cespedes. Seth Smith followed with a shot single to right to put runners on first and third. Leyland ordered Albuquerque to walk Josh Reddick to load the bases, then he called in Rick Porcello to face Vogt with the raging crowd of 48,292 in full scream mode. Vogt responded with a liner over the head of shortstop Iglesias, setting off a mob scene on the field and leading to pies in the face for both Gray and Vogt.
The two rookies took much different paths to the majors, but they found themselves sharing a moment of triumph.
"You come up in the ninth, bases loaded and nobody out. That’s what you dream of," said Vogt, who had much time to dream during his seven seasons in the minors. "I was just fortunate to come through."
This was the night when dreams came true for two rookies who hope to be a big part of advancing the A’s past the veteran Tigers. As Gray exited the interview room at the Oakland Coliseum, Verlander walked in. Verlander reached out to shake Gray’s hand then clapped him on the back and told him, "Good job."
The kid had matched one of his boyhood idols, and the idol had the class to let him know. This could be the start of a beautiful rivalry.