Oakland's Game 1 starter thrives behind calm demeanor, numerous flavors of fastballs
OAKLAND -- If this is what 40 looks like, maybe everyone should just skip their 30s.
Derek Norris peeks over at Bartolo Colon. He shakes his head, a natural tendency by anyone asked about the veteran that's typically followed by a smile as the word "unbelievable" is muttered.
"When I'm 40, these things won't be working," says Norris, grabbing hold of his knee. "Man, I'll probably just be following my kids around."
In Oakland, the kids are following around the 40-year-old.
Colon doesn't have to say much, and he doesn't, much past his good mornings to teammates, but that's not what matters. They're still drawn to his every move, his "cool as a cucumber" tendencies, as Grant Balfour describes it.
"People might not think that he works hard, but he does," said rookie Sonny Gray. "He has a routine down, and he has it down to the minute, it seems, every single day. I think that's something that can help you stay in the game as long as he has."
Colon didn't expect this, to be pitching at age 40. Not in the playoffs, and certainly not as a Game 1 starter, a title last reserved for him eight years ago. Gray was 15 years old at the time.
Key stat: Scherzer was dominant on the road this season, posting a 2.28 ERA and an American League-best 0.92 WHIP.
Key stat: After returning from the disabled list in late August, Colon went 4-1 with a 1.25 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 36 innings.
At O.co Coliseum
2013: 1 GS, 0-0, 1.50 ERA Career: 3 GS, 1-1, 4.15 ERA
2013: 16 GS, 8-3, 2.58 ERA Career: 36 G, 35 GS, 17-10, 2.93 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 2 GS, 0-0, 4.91 ERA Career: 6 GS, 2-1, 4.20 ERA
2013: 2 GS, 0-0, 3.00 ERA Career: 27 G, 26 GS, 8-10, 5.40 ERA
Loves to face: Daric Barton, 0-for-4, 3 K's Hates to face: Jed Lowrie, 2-for-6, 2B, HR
Loves to face: Austin Jackson, 4-for-14, 5 K's Hates to face: Alex Avila, 4-for-8, 2B, 2 HR
Why he'll win: Scherzer pitched well when facing Oakland in last year's postseason, allowing one unearned run over 5 1/3 innings and striking out eight.
Why he'll win: Over his past four starts, Colon has allowed three runs in 26 innings, walking only four batters and striking out 30.
Pitcher beware: Scherzer allowed a season-high six runs (five earned) on eight hits to the A's on Aug. 29.
Pitcher beware: Colon hasn't pitched in a postseason game since 2005. He's 2-3 with a 3.61 ERA in nine career postseason starts.
Bottom line: Scherzer needs to be aggressive and pitch to his strengths. When he gets ahead in counts, batters are hitting .163 against him.
Bottom line: Colon needs to pitch well in his second time through the lineup. Hitters own a .662 OPS in their first time against him compared to a .710 OPS in their second at-bat.
"I never dreamed of this," Colon said through A's coach and translator Ariel Prieto.
He won't have to. Colon will live it Friday, when he leads the A's into their American League Division Series against Max Scherzer and the Tigers at the Coliseum, beginning at 6:30 p.m. PT on TBS.
"We have that veteran presence that's going to lead us off," said manager Bob Melvin. "We didn't have that last year even though our guys were well-suited to perform regardless. We were all rookies last year when the playoffs started, but now you have a guy who's a veteran guy who's pitched plenty of games and pitched in the postseason and is looking forward to leading the way this year as well."
Colon has made 405 regular-season starts in 16 Major League seasons for seven teams, and nine more in postseason play. His most recent campaign resulted in 18 wins, next to six losses, and he could have had more had he not gone on the disabled list in August with a groin strain.
But the layoff only made him better.
The right-hander's 2.65 ERA ranked second in the AL, and he showed no signs of age in marching his way up to 190 1/3 innings. He was an All-Star in what was his best season since his 21-8 Cy Young Award year in 2005, and he's expected to tally more than a few Cy Young votes this year, too.
Just eight months ago, Colon was apologizing to Melvin and his teammates for his costly run-in with performance-enhancing drugs, which shelved him for 50 games last season and made him unavailable to the A's in an ALDS they lost to Detroit.
"He felt like he needed to do that," Melvin said of Colon's apology. "He got it out of the way early and has been an integral part since. It really has felt like since he's been here he hasn't missed a beat and he's been here the whole time. It was very disappointing for him to miss the end of last year for the reasons that have been documented, but he's done everything he can to be the teammate that he is again."
Colon made $3 million this season, and it turned out to be the best money the A's have spent in a while.
"He's been the No. 1 for us, the table-setter," said Balfour. "To go out and do that is phenomenal. Everybody talks about his age, but to me it's just a number. He goes out there and throws in the mid-90s, he's got great stuff and he goes out there and throws strikes and challenges guys. He's a quiet guy, but you can tell he's got a competitive fierce inside him. He just shows it a different way."
And he makes it all look easy.
"He always knows what he's doing," said Norris. "There's always a purpose for every single pitch. If he misses up, he's setting them up for something. He's not just going to throw a pitch because you put [a sign] down. He's going to throw what he wants to throw 100 percent of the time. And if he had it his way, he'd throw all fastballs."
Colon doesn't rack up a lot of strikeouts, but by averaging just 1.4 walks he nearly eliminated free baserunners. Pinpoint location kept the hits down, too, as he manipulated his fastball by constantly changing speeds and movement. And his velocity isn't bad, either. Against the Mariners on Friday, he hit 95 and 96 mph on occasion -- in the sixth inning.
"I've had zero success facing him," said catcher John Jaso. "Last year was really the only time I faced him, and it was just a really uncomfortable at-bat. Like, the one pitch I knew he was going to throw me was a front-door two-seamer, and even if I was ready for it I still couldn't hit it because I couldn't take 11 years of my training experience and all of a sudden flip a switch on that day to go ahead and swing at a ball that's headed right at you. It doesn't work that way."
"These guys get frustrated because the four-seam comes in pretty hot, and the two-seamer, you don't know when it's going to break," added Norris. :I think it just gets in their minds. They don't know how to attack him. I wouldn't either if I was hitting. I'd probably just try to see the ball and hope it runs back.
"He's got like nine different fastballs. He adds and subtracts his pitches so well. I don't know how he does it, but he does it to perfection. The rate he's going, it's not out of the question he could pitch past 45."
Forty, it turns out, isn't so bad.
"He always tells everyone that this is the most fun he's ever had playing baseball," said Ryan Cook. "That's so cool."