Seemingly Mismatched, Young A's Survive Again
OAKLAND— It was the classic mismatch: a grizzled star closer facing down a rookie who barely clawed his way to the majors this year after teetering on the brink of Four-A obscurity.
Jose Valverde, who makes every save a work of performance art, had the chance to send Detroit into the American League championship series, and he could start by retiring novice Josh Donaldson. The rookie third baseman had only returned to Oakland on Aug. 14 after a stint in Triple-A.
This time, the kid beat the veteran. Valverde carried a 3-1 lead into the ninth, when Josh Reddick singled. Then Valverde dropped a fastball down the middle of the plate to Donaldson, and he lashed it off the left-field fence. Seth Smith doubled to tie the game. Two batters later, Coco Crisp singled home the winning run in Oakland's 4-3 walkoff victory to even the American League Divisional Series at two games apiece.
There would be no celebration from Valverde, who trudged back to the dugout without fanfare.
This has been a most improbable run for the most rookie-laden team in playoff history. The A's have a dozen rooks on the playoff roster, more than the previous record of nine by the 2007 Diamondbacks. That they have pulled even against the veteran Tigers, with their Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, their big contract Prince Fielder and their perpetual Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander is simply a rewriting of baseball traditions. Rookies have long been expected to wilt in the spotlight and fade in the postseason. Not these A's. Not yet.
Another rookie, Jarrod Parker, will pitch tonight against Verlander to try and defy all odds and send the young A's to the AL Championship Series.
"It's just something special," Donaldson said. "The character of this group of guys is very special. It's a never-say-die attitude. We believe in ourselves. It's been a long journey to get to where we are right now, and we're not ready to stop."
Donaldson almost seemed stopped in his career. At 26, he has been on the brink of a big league job for years, but he could never nail it down until his return in August, when the converted catcher took charge at third base, both defensively and offensively. After his August return, he hit .290 with 11 doubles and eight homers over the final 47 games.
In many ways he epitomizes the cast of rookies that have carried the A's to their strange and wonderful season. They are not all from the Top 100 lists. Many are surprises that emerged during the season. It is part for what makes baseball so intriguing, that even the most expert scouts and prognosticators can still be surprised.
A.J. Griffin, last night's starting pitcher, is another such rookie. A 13th-round pick in 2010, he rushed through the A's system to grab a starting job when an opening appeared this year. He finished the regular season 7-1, 3.06. Against the Tigers, he gritted out five innings despite not having his best stuff. He allowed two runs and kept the A's in the game. He became the third rookie to start in the ALDS, the most rookie starting pitchers ever in a postseason series.
"I'm never surprised when they do this," Griffin said. "It's the 15th time this year (that the A's have won on a walkoff). We just go out there and play as hard as we can for the full game."
Griffin, a former University of San Diego star, wears a Carpe Diem tattoo on his chest, and the A's definitely seized the day, just as Griffin has seized his opportunity.
The advantages of playoff experience have long been an axiom in baseball, but the A's simply defy all the axioms. Tiger manager Jim Leyland scoffs at the concept.
"Oh, I've never believed in that stuff," Leyland said before the game. "I believe in talent . . . A lot of people talk about it; it's good conversation, I guess. But I don't believe in that."
Melvin's A's have bought into a team concept, where success is about the team, not the individual.
"It's a very selfless group that just worries about the win or loss at the end of the day," Melvin said before the game. "They don't worry about being pinch-hit for; no one takes it personally. Everybody has bought into it. It's a credit to the players and their willingness to understand that we're trying to do the best thing for the team. I think that's what we've benefitted from."
Melvin cited team leader Jonny Gomes for his willingness to accept platooning and bench time, for buying into the Melvin system that has delivered this unlikely squad into a do-or-die playoff game against the star-studded Tigers.
Ryan Cook picked up the win in relief. He is another rookie, but after a season in the pennant race, a trip to the All-Star Game and meeting challenge after challenge, he is not much into the whole rookie thing.
"It's October now," he said. "You can call us rookies if you want, but we've all been here. We've been in this situation." He paused and chuckled. "We don't know any better."
Cook and the other rookies may have been piling up experience, but they really do not know any better. They are performing in a selfless system that probably would not work on any other team in the majors, and they are making a run unlike any in the history of the game.