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The A's and Tigers kick off their best-of-five American League Division Series on Saturday at 3:00 Pacific time. You know all about the A's. You probably know a thing or two about the Tigers. Here are some things to look for in this series.
1. Which Justin Verlander will show up? When a team brings a super-ace starter to a 5-game series, the whole world freaks out about how the other team will have to face him twice. Is that going to decide this series, though? We all know what Verlander can do; last year, he won the Cy Young and the MVP, and this year he is going to finish in the Top 3 for the Cy Young again (if he doesn't win it outright). He's almost certainly the best pitcher in baseball right now. Here's the thing, though: He's never been particularly good in the playoffs. Here is an irresponsibly quick look at his postseason career:
2006 ALDS: 5.06 ERA
2006 ALCS: 6.75 ERA
2006 WS: 5.73 ERA (2 starts)
2011 ALDS: 5.00 ERA (2 starts, sort of)
2011 ALCS: 5.56 ERA (2 starts, sort of)
Now, there are extenuating circumstances. In 2006, Verlander was a rookie. He's certainly grown and developed as a pitcher since then, but it's not like he was bad back then. He won the Rookie of the Year, and finished 7th in the Cy Young voting. He was supposed to be good in the playoffs, and he wasn't. He made four starts, and only one of them was decent (Game 5 of the World Series). The only start that his team won was the ALCS start, in which he got pulled in the 6th after allowing his 2nd homer of the day; the Tigers only won because some silly team brought Esteban Loaiza to the playoffs, where he predictably got shelled.
In 2011, Verlander was no longer a rookie. He had already been voted MVP, though we didn't know that yet. However, it's tough to hold his postseason performance against him; in both the ALDS and ALCS, his Game 1 starts were shortened by rain, forcing him out after the 1st and 4th innings, respectively. Granted, he wasn't pitching well in either game when he was removed, but you have to figure that the rain could also have played a part in that.
So, you can add it all up to say that Verlander has a 5.57 ERA in 8 postseason starts, but the fact is that we've never really seen Veteran Verlander get a fair shake at a normal postseason. We know that he pitched well against the A's this year, but one of his starts came on May 13 (check out the lineup he faced that day), and in the other, Oakland was at least able to knock him out after 6 innings (despite not being able to actually score).
It's pretty easy to say that Verlander is a thing to watch in this series. He's one of the two best players on either team. The point is, there is hope. Verlander is great, but he is decidedly human. He can be beaten in the playoffs, just like anyone else. So, when I call him a "thing to watch," what I mean is that it's OK to open your eyes when he's on the mound and actually watch him pitch; if history is any guide, the results may not be as scary as you fear.
2. Is Max Scherzer at 100% yet? The last time we saw Scherzer, he was leaving his start against Oakland after 2 innings with shoulder soreness. He returned to make two more starts at the end of the season, but threw only 86 and 75 pitches, respectively. The short leash was obviously a precaution, but is he going to be able to reach back and throw 110 pitches in the playoffs (especially considering that he skipped his final tune-up start with a twisted ankle)? We'll find out soon enough. In addition to his recent injury problems, Scherzer tends to be inefficient with his pitch count. The obvious game plan is for the A's to work deep counts in order to knock him out of the game as early as possible.
3. How will Newbob work his beloved platoons? Here is the projected rotation for the Tigers: Verlander, Doug Fister, Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez. All four are right-handed. There will certainly be one or two lefties in the bullpen, but about 80-90% of Detroit's innings will be thrown by right-handers. How often will Newbob be able to work Jonny Gomes and Chris Carter into the lineup, and in what way? Will either of them start a game, or will they both just be power bats off the bench, existing only to give lefty Phil Coke nightmares to which none of his teammates can relate?
4. How will Travis Blackley be used? This question is inherently related to another important one: How many innings will Oakland get out of its starting rotation? Jarrod Parker has been cruising along, but Tommy Milone and A.J. Griffin have struggled to work deep into games and Brett Anderson hasn't pitched in weeks. As exciting as it was to see Cook and Balfour appear in 5 straight games down the stretch, it would be really nice to see someone else step up and get big outs. Will Blackley be saved for a long-relief opportunity, in case Milone gets shelled or Anderson re-tweaks his weak oblique? Or will be just be another strong 1-2 inning option to work alongside Evan Scribner or Jerry Blevins in the 6th or 7th?
5. Which team will make the defensive mistake that changes the series? The Tigers are one of the worst defensive teams in the Majors; the A's can look like a team of Gold Glovers one minute, and a team of rookies the next. Either one is capable of making a crucial error at an inopportune time, and a mistake which costs you one game in a 5-game series may well appear, in hindsight, to be the miscue which led to your elimination. Both of these teams can pitch, and both of them can hit dingers. It might boil down to which one can execute defensively when it matters most.
There are plenty of things to look for in any playoff series, but the health and effectiveness of the starting rotations is probably the real key for both teams. Each can be dominant, but each has big question marks (namely, Scherzer and Anderson). Is there anything that you will be specifically looking for in these games? If so, share in the comments!