Oakland pits rookie against Verlander with season on the line
Barry M. Bloom
OAKLAND -- The top baseball minds of the Oakland A's have decided to pin the team's immediate future in this postseason on the right arm of Sonny Gray. He's 23 and will be making his 12th big league start, this one against the Tigers on Thursday in climactic Game 5 of their American League Division Series, airing at 5 p.m PT on TBS.
For the second time in five days at O.co Coliseum, Gray will be facing veteran Detroit right-hander Justin Verlander, the former AL Cy Young Award winner who has owned the A's in his last three ALDS starts during the past two postseasons.
The best-of-five series is tied at two games apiece. The Tigers defeated the A's last year in Game 5 of the ALDS and swept them in the 2006 AL Championship Series. The winner this year will go on to face the Red Sox in the ALCS, beginning at Fenway Park Saturday on FOX.
In choosing Gray to pitch the crucial ballgame, the A's bypassed Bartolo Colon, another former winner of the AL Cy Young Award and victorious in 18 games this season at 40 years old. Behind Colon, the A's lost Game 1, 3-2, against Max Scherzer here after having allowed all three runs in the top of the first.
"Obviously, we had two great options there with Bartolo," A's manager Bob Melvin said during a late-afternoon conference call Wednesday. "We looked at it at a bunch of different angles. We have a lot of smart people in our front office and in our baseball operations and the short of it is it came down to Sonny and the last game he pitched in similar conditions in our ballpark. So that's the route we're going to go."
That was Saturday night in Game 2. Gray, making his first playoff start, matched Verlander zero for zero into the late innings. Verlander came out of the scoreless tie after seven innings, having allowed four hits with a walk and 11 strikeouts. Gray made it through eight and also gave up only four hits. He walked two and whiffed nine.
Key stat: Verlander extended his postseason scoreless innings streak against the A's to 22 innings in his Game 2 no decision - the longest streak against the A's since 1905.
Key stat: Gray became the second pitcher in A's postseason history with at least eight scoreless innings, nine strikeouts and four or fewer hits in Game 2.
At O.co Coliseum (reg. season)
2013: 1-0, 0.69 ERA Career: 5-4, 2.16 ERA
2013: 3-1, 1.66 ERA Career: 3-1, 1.66 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 1-1, 2.00 ERA Career: 8-6, 2.31 ERA
2013: 0-0, 0.00 ERA Career: 0-0, 0.00 ERA
Loves to face: Eric Sogard, 0-for-9, K Hates to face:: Coco Crisp, 8-for-28, 2 2B
Loves to face: Austin Jackson, 0-for-4, 4 K Hates to face:: Don Kelly, 2-for-3, 2 1B
Why he'll win: Verlander pitched in this spot last year, tossing a complete-game, 11-strikeout outing that sent Detroit to the ALCS.
Why he'll win: Gray has a 1.85 ERA over his last seven outings and rose to the challenge in Game 2.
Pitcher beware: Verlander struggled down the stretch with his highest ERA (3.46) and WHIP (1.31) since 2008.
Pitcher beware: He's a rookie making his 12th career start in a win-or-go-home game.
Bottom line: If Verlander pitches as well as he did in Game 2, one run by the Tigers could be enough to send Detroit back to the ALCS.
Bottom line: Gray will need to be as sharp as he was in Game 2 for the A's, who are 1-11 in possible clinching games since 2000.
Grant Balfour pitched a perfect ninth and was credited with the win when Stephen Vogt lined a bases-loaded single for the 1-0 victory. Melvin is counting on Gray to do it again.
"He's a veritable bulldog and he's scared of nothing," Melvin said. "Right away, he established what he wanted to do in that game. He's pitched in some big games, and when you talk about experience in those games, he really does have that kind of pitching experience, pitching just five days ago. He pitched in the same venue against the same team with the same type of crowd we're expecting. He looked pretty comfortable with it."
Two years ago, Gray pitched his Vanderbilt team into the College World Series and lost an elimination game to Oregon State. He was the A's top pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, No. 18 overall. Gray was brought up for good from Triple-A Sacramento on Aug. 10 after a two-game trial out of the A's bullpen earlier in the season.
He made 10 starts and was 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 12 big league appearances. But nothing could prepare the world for the composure he showed against Verlander, who has defeated the A's twice during the past two postseasons, allowing one run and striking out 33 in the three starts.
It was Verlander over Jarrod Parker in the clincher last Oct. 10, a year to the day of Thursday's big game. Verlander pitched a 6-0 shutout, allowing four hits and striking out 11.
Gray again is going to have to match him pitch for pitch.
"He's got a power arm and lot of talent, but it's hard to know -- like in Game 2 -- how a young guy is going to react," A's shortstop Jed Lowrie said about Gray. "But he went out there with all the confidence in the world and performed pretty well."
Melvin said "it's an all hands-on-deck situation" and his available pitchers will be ready to go out of the bullpen behind Gray. He didn't discount Colon in a relief situation, although the manager said he might be hard-pressed to use him in that vein. Melvin said Parker came out of his start after five innings and 73 pitches on Monday in Detroit because of undefined soreness and disclosed that Dan Straily was removed on Tuesday after six innings and 76 pitches because of another nagging injury. Neither should be available.
"[Straily} actually pitched with a little bit of back tightness, just a mild cramp from the cold, for the last three innings he pitched," Melvin said. "He pitched effectively, but it was there and once we got to the seventh inning we thought it was a good time to take him out."
The two injuries caused Melvin to overuse his relief corps, although Dan Otero, Sean Doolittle and Balfour, pitched shutout ball after Parker was pulled in a 6-3, Game 3 victory. Matters didn't work out so well in Game 4 as Straily left with a 4-3 lead and four A's relievers were hammered for four runs on five hit in the 8-6 loss.
The A's can ill-afford a short starting stint on Thursday or Colon allowing a few runs early with Verlander on the mound. That was certainly all part of the equation when it came to pitching Gray.
Melvin said that telling Colon about the decision was one of the toughest things he's had to do, considering Colon's resume and stature.
"He made it easy on me," Melvin said. "He's a man of a few words as it is. He definitely could have had a gripe. I wouldn't have been surprised if he did. He just looked at me and said, 'OK, I just want to win.'"
In the end, the A's big baseball wigs determined that Gray gives them the best chance to do just that.