OAKLAND—It was one of the great gambles in baseball.
Facing Game Five elimination and perhaps the best pitcher in baseball, the A’s braintrust entrusted their immediate future into the hands of raw rookie Sonny Gray rather than 40-year-old veteran Bartolo Colon in the deciding game of the American League Division Series. Gray had pitched eight shutout innings in Game Two, and the A’s decided to go with the hottest hand, though he had only a few weeks of major league experience.
In the end, it mattered little whom the A’s started. The night was all about John Verlander, who pitched eight shutout innings to lead Detroit to a 3-0 victory and push the Tigers into Saturday’s American League Championship Series opener in Boston.
By his own standards, Verlander had struggled most of the regular season, finishing 13-12, 3.46, disappointing numbers for a Cy Young winner. He said he has battled his mechanics all season, solving one problem only to have something else fall out of whack. But by the end of the year, everything started coming together. In his Game Two matchup against Gray, he threw seven shutout innings in an eventual 1-0 A’s victory.
“He was even better tonight,” said A’s catcher Stephen Vogt. “His fastball had more life on it, and his curve had a sharper break.”
Verlander was perfect through 5 1/3, and held the A’s hitless until Yoenis Cespedis singled with two outs in the seventh. He allowed only two hits in eight scoreless innings in what will rank as one of the great performances of his illustrious career.
“I’m pitching the way I’m supposed to,” Verlander said. “I’ve worked my butt off all year to try and get consistent and get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year.”
Gray pitched well. He held the Tigers hitless through 3 1/3, before a Torii Hunter single and Miguel Cabrera’s two-run homer. He broke his non-pitching left hand fielding Prince Fielder’s shot back to the box in the fifth and returned for the sixth. Manager Bob Melvin pulled him after allowing two singles.
“He pitched fine tonight,” Melvin said. “His ball-strike ratio was a little off for him, therefore he couldn’t get deeper in the game. He basically just gave up a home run to Miguel Cabrera. When you don’t score run and only get a couple of hits, you have to be perfect.”
“It’s tough to come this far and have them on the ropes in Game Four and come back home with high expectations. Tonight, I didn’t get it done,” Gray said.
Vogt said the Tigers took a different tact against him, being more patient and running up his pitch count, and Cabrera said that was the plan.
“To me, he’s a great pitcher,” Cabrera said. “First time we see him, he pitched excellent game. We were able today to be patient; try to not make mistakes; try to wait and swing at our pitch.”
While Gray may have received an “L” in the biggest game of his career thus far, the 2011 first-round pick out of Vanderbilt made quite an impression.
“The sky’s the limit, said catcher Vogt, who also worked with him in Sacramento before they both were called up. “He’s 23 and already pitched two of the biggest games of his life. Answered the bell. Lived up to all the hype. Didn’t cave under pressure. Did an outstanding job.”
Gray’s fastball hits 96 and seems to move in different directions at different times. His power curve can dominate. Importantly, he threw more changeups than he has in any of his major league games. Vogt estimated 10 to 12, and they were effective. Gray worked to master the pitch in the minors as the A’s coaches preached the importance of having a third pitch to keep hitters off balance.
The gamble worked in the sense that Gray pitched well; well enough to win on most nights. But Verlander has that something special about him. With 46,959 fans razzing him, some holding up pictures of his model ex-girlfriend Kate Upton, he faced up to the pressure and turned out the lights in Oakland. He may not be pleased with his regular season, but that all changes in October.