OAKLAND—On the eve of the biggest game of his life, Gerrit Cole stopped to send a text message to an old friend.
"He sent me a text saying, ‘This is weird. We’re both throwing in the playoffs, when a year-and-a-half ago, we were facing each other in college,’" said A’s righthander Sonny Gray. Gray responded by telling Cole that, yeah, it is weird.
Former UCLA star Cole put an end to the weirdness by firing two-hit ball over seven innings to lead the Pirates to a 7-1 win over the Cardinals to even the National League Division Series at a game apiece.
Gray, the former Vanderbilt standout, will get his chance to replicate the performance Saturday night when he tries to even Oakland’s series against Detroit. The Tigers took the first game of the ALDS, 3-2, behind the dominant pitching of Max Scherzer.
This is the postseason of the young pitcher, and Cole and Gray exemplify that youth movement. The two first-round picks in 2011 have thundered into the majors to become second-game starters in the postseason.
After the A’s loss, Gray carefully edged around questions that might cause him to put any extra pressure on himself, talking about the team and how each game matters. "I’ll try to control everything that’s possible to control and get in a little rhythm," he said. If he can do that, he has a chance to match his friend Cole.
Max Scherzer emerged as the dominant pitcher in the American League this year, finishing 21-3, 2.90 and a dazzling 0.86 WHIP. He showed every bit of that skill in holding the A’s to one hit over six innings Friday night before allowing a two-run homer to Yoenis Cespedes in the seventh. Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit combined to stop the A’s in the final two innings to secure the playoff’s opener.
The Tigers stopped an A’s team built around youth, with two rookies among the four playoff starters, plus a pair of the most unlikely rookie standouts in baseball. Dan Straley, also a rookie will start Game Four, if necessary. And both Stephen Vogt and Dan Otero played Friday.
Neither Vogt nor Otero are the types of rookies to appear on anyone’s top 100 list. They have both been down-and-out and castoffs before landing in Oakland this year and becoming big contributors to the AL Western Division championship.
Vogt, 28, spent six years slogging through Tampa Bay’s farms system before getting a callup to the Rays last season. When there appeared no place for him with the Rays, he was dealt to the A’s to provide catching depth at Triple A. But an injury to John Jaso opened up a spot for a lefty-hitting catcher, and he came to Oakland to make a statement. He hit .252/.295/.400 with four homers in 47 games, and he played such good defense that he earned a platoon job and was behind the plate to face Scherzer. He finished hitless in his three at bats, but he did hit a lineout to first.
Vogt admits he did feel his heart clinch when he walked out before the 48,401 fans at the Oakland Coliseum. In just a few short months he had erased the 4-A label that had long been hung around his neck.
"Obviously I thought about it," Vogt said. "Before the game, it was a cool feeling. I got a little emotional, just by myself, real quick. At the same time, even the excitement of being here is gone and it’s time to win games."
Otero’s road to the playoffs has been equally quirky. Early in the season he was waived by the Giants, picked up by the Yankees only to be waived again and picked up by the A’s. The former Duke and South Florida standout took over as the closer for Triple-A Sacramento, where he converted 15 saves and posted an 0.99 ERA before getting the call to the majors. At 28, he established himself in the A’s bullpen, throwing a hard sinker that manager Bob Melvin said "is like hitting a bowling ball."
Otero, who went 2-0, 1.38 in 39 innings in the regular season, came in to pitch against the Tigers and threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of starter Bartolo Colon to keep the A’s within a run.
Otero and Vogt, rookies approaching 30, don’t have star-power tools, but they are the gritty players who slip to the majors, contribute for good teams and keep the game fascinating. They will both have their chances the next few days.