How about these A's? The ALDS is now even after one of the most phenomenal pitcher's duels I've ever seen set the stage for Stephen Vogt to do something big with the bases loaded and none out in the bottom of the 9th of a scoreless game. Vogt didn't disappoint, hitting a line-drive single into left field to score Yoenis Cespedes, pushing across the contest's first and only run and giving the A's a walk-off win in Game 2.
After repeatedly, cruelly, and tantalizingly putting themselves in prime position to break open the scoring yet failing to get it done, the A's finally made it happen in the bottom of the 9th, and we have a whole new series. Game 3 is Monday at 10am PT in Detroit, and the A's have the opportunity to put themselves in the driver's seat with a victory.
There's a lot of play-by-play in this recap, so here's a summary of the game's more important dynamics:
First of all, both Sonny Gray and Justin Verlander were absolutely lights-out tonight. But just think about that sentence — Sonny Gray, a rookie making his 13th MLB appearance and 11th MLB start, was more than comparable to Verlander, who was pitching at his best tonight. Two years ago, Sonny Gray had just been drafted, fresh off a College World Series appearance with the Vanderbilt Commodores. 28 months later, he out-dueled a six-time All Star and former Cy Young award winner in front of more than 48,000 fans and a national television audience.
You could (and I will) easily make the argument that beyond being as good as Verlander tonight, Gray was better. Sure, neither pitcher allowed any runs, and sure, Verlander racked up 11 strikeouts. But the biggest difference, at least for me, lies here: both pitchers gave up four hits, but three of the four that Gray gave up were infield hits that were hits and not outs due to sheer luck. But when Verlander gave up hits, he actually got hit, starting with a Josh Donaldson single on a sharp grounder up the middle in the 4th and continuing with well-hit line drives from Cespedes and Seth Smith that landed in front of Torri Hunter for singles in the bottom of the 5th. That Tigers didn't manage contact like that off Gray all night.
It's worth noting that the Tigers have managed exactly three runs in their last 27 innings, having been no-hit by Miami's Henderson Alvarez in their regular-season finale last Sunday and continuing through the first two games of this Division Series. Miguel Cabrera's playing hurt, and Prince Fielder and the rest of Detroit's offense haven't done anything worth noting in a while.
All of that being said, Verlander was absolute nails tonight. The A's couldn't score, obviously, but beyond that, he struck out 11 Oakland hitters in only seven innings of work. It was a vintage Verlander performance, but you have to credit the A's with running up the notoriously durable right-hander's pitch count to the point that, despite having thrown seven scoreless innings, he wasn't available for the 8th.
Despite Verlander's dominance, the A's had plenty of opportunities to score in the late innings, consistently failing to capitalize on having runners in scoring position. Had the A's not pulled out the victory, this would have gone down as one of the most frustrating games in A's history, given the context and the Oakland's consistent failures to push even a single run across when presented with ideal opportunities to do so.
Here's another theme for the night: CB Bucknor, as we already knew, is a very, very bad umpire. It's unfortunate that he was given the opportunity to demonstrate that in an extremely important playoff game in front of a huge crowd and a national audience, but the unfortunate reality was there for all to see tonight.
One last dynamic, one that's irrelevant yet interesting: TBS' production quality throughout the first few days of the playoffs has been awful, and that might be putting it kindly. Last night, the failed to show Torii Hunter getting thrown out trying to steal second base while showing a replay, and they accidentally cut to an episode of Seinfeld in the middle of the game. Tonight, they referred to Justin Verlander as "Jason Verlander", claimed that all of Coco Crisp's home runs this year were leadoff home runs, and told the whole country that tonight marked Sonny Gray's 11th Major League appearance. Buck Martinez, one of the TBS color commentators for last night's game, sounded like a broken record, and then the whole gang got involved with the absurdity when they discussed what an obvious scenario it was for a sac bunt when Coco Crisp was hitting with a runner already in scoring position and none out in the 8th.
So how did it happen? Get ready for some detailed play-by-play. Thankfully, this game was incredibly dramatic despite being scoreless through 8 and 1/2 innings, so I hope I won't bore you all terribly.
Gray started the game off by striking out Austin Jackson on a slider, then inducing a soft grounder to shortstop from Torii Hunter. Miguel Cabrera reached base with two outs on a line drive to left field, but Gray retired Prince Fielder on a tapper to the right side, making his first inning of postseason, big-league baseball a success.
Verlander retired the A's in order in Oakland's half of the 1st. Coco Crisp led off, and worked the count to 3-2 before flying out to Don Kelly in left field. Jed Lowrie was called out on strikes on a perfect pitch on the high and inside corner of the strike zone, and Donaldson popped out to Omar Infante to end the inning.
The 2nd inning got off to an inauspicious start for Gray, who issued a one-out, four-pitch walk to Alex Avila. But Gray's curveball was effective early on, and he used it to strike out Omar Infante on a halfhearted swing for the second out. Don Kelly hit then a soft ground ball that sneaked past Brandon Moss the hole on the right side of the infield — Eric Sogard took a very steep angle to cut the ball off in 20 feet past the edge of the grass, preventing Avila from advancing to third. Gray quickly worked his way out of the jam when Jose Iglesias hit a ground ball right at Josh Donaldson, who tagged his base for the last out.
The A's had the "power" portion of their lineup coming up in the bottom of the 2nd: Moss, Cespedes, and Smith. But Moss struck out, and Cespedes worked the count full before flying out to right field. Smith was the one who showed the most patience, taking three close pitches outside the zone and eventually working the count full. Smith had already worked six walks off Verlander in only 21 career plate appearances, and came extremely close to earning a seventh. But home plate umpire CB Bucknor wasn't in the mood to reward Smith for a great plate appearance. The sixth pitch of the at-bat was about six inches low and six inches off the outside corner, but after a split-second hesitation, Bucknor rung Smith up, earning the ire of Smith, the crowd, and Bob Melvin, who came out to chat with Bucknor but was quickly told that he wasn't allowed to come out to home plate to argue balls and strikes.
The call was so bad that it drew this Twitter reaction from an old friend:
Bucknor may have felt guilty about the clearly missed call, and called out Austin Jackson in the next frame on a third strike that PitchTrax showed was a few inches off the outside corner. It wasn't anywhere near as bad a call as the Smith strikeout; rather, it was just more evidence that CB Bucknor is a particularly bad umpire.
In the next at-bat, Gray threw a pitch high and tight to Torii Hunter that the Detroit outfielder took issue with, gesturing angrily at Gray and complaining to Vogt that, apparently, he thought Gray was either trying to send a message or hit him outright. The 23-year-old rookie responded phenomenally, though, getting Hunter to swing and miss at strike three and following up by striking out Cabrera. It later turned out that Hunter was neither scared nor offended, but that he was trying to get into Gray's head. It's safe to say this his plan backfired.
In keeping with the previously established pattern, the A's went down in order in the bottom of the 3rd, first by way of a Reddick foulout that the banged-up Cabrera did a nice job of running down in the Coliseum's expansive foul territory down the third base line. Stephen Vogt struck out looking, and despite making the best contact of the night against Verlander, Sogard was retired on a line drive that ended up right in Cabrera's glove.
At this point, the pitcher's duel was in full swing. Verlander was perfect through his first nine batters faced (well, he walked Smith, but not on paper), while Gray hadn't allowed a run through three innings, either. He continued that streak with a quick 4th inning, getting Prince Fielder on a grounder to Sogard, Martinez on a flyout to Reddick, and Avila on a groundout into the shift that Lowrie picked up over the bag at second base, flipping the ball to Moss to end the inning.
It was more of the same for the first two batters in the bottom of the 4th, as Coco and Lowrie went down on back-to-back called strikeouts. But Donaldson finally broke up the perfecto with a grounder back up the middle, past Verlander, and through the hole into center field. Moss couldn't capitalize, falling victim to the third punchout of the inning.
Gray issued his second four-pitch walk of the game to Infante leading off the 5th. Kelly hit a grounder to Sogard that might have been double play material had Jim Leyland not called for a hit-and-run, which forced Sogard to go to first. Iglesias singled on a tapper past the mound — Jed Lowrie made a nice play, but his throw to first was well late. That left Tigers at first and third with one out, but lightning struck, and the A's got out of the inning on a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play. Jackson chased a fastball off the plate, and Vogt came up throwing, sending a perfect strike towards Sogard, who tagged out Iglesias to end the inning and elicit a roar from the Coliseum crowd of 48,292.
Cespedes led off the bottom of the 5th with a line drive single that fell in front of Hunter in right field, who might have been able to make the play had he not hesitated en route to the ball. Smith followed up with a line drive single of his own, also to right field. Smith initially took a changeup low, whiffed at another on the 1-0 count, and turned on the third changeup he saw.
That gave the A's two runners on with none out, with Josh Reddick at the plate. The old-school, not-sabermetrically-savvy TBS crew was calling for a sacrifice bunt, and Bob Melvin decided to oblige them.
Let's ignore the result, though, and objectively decide whether a successful sac bunt is even worth it at that point. I'm not going to use MLB run expectancy charts for this one, since it was clear that teams wouldn't be scoring at a normal pace against Gray and Verlander. If the bunt is successful, it puts runners on second and third with one out and chances for Vogt and Sogard to drive in the go-ahead run. But at this point, a run seemed like it was going to be the game-winner, and Oakland already had a runner in scoring position. So does the bunt make sense? In my opinion, no — Sogard and Vogt are perfectly capable of getting the ball in the air to bring home a run via a sac fly, but that obviously only applies with one out or less. And I think I'd prefer two opportunities for a base hit that scores the go-ahead run than one opportunity to bring in that run with a sacrifice, especially since those two opportunities for base hits could easily result in moving the runner over without expressly conceding the out.
Anyway, all of that was a moot point, because Reddick did try to get the bunt down, and to put it simply, he failed. Miguel Cabrerar snagged the ensuing softly hit pop-up for the inning's first out.
Vogt swung out swinging in the ensuing at-bat, on a pitch that Bucknor ruled a foul tip caught by Alex Avila. It won't surprise you to hear that Bucknor was actually 0-for-2 — after seeing the replay, Vogt probably didn't tip the ball, but Avila definitely didn't catch it. Did the call change anything? No, not really. Is CB Bucknor an absolutely terrible umpire? Yes.
Sogard struck out to end the inning, stranding both runner and smothering the A's hopes of scoring in what was, by a huge margin, their best chance of the evening to push a run across.
Sonny Gray wasn't affected by the lack of run support — on the contrary, it seemed to fuel him. It should be obvious, given that you're reading this recap, how objectively unbelievable Gray was tonight. When you consider the fact that he's a rookie who was making his 11th start in Major League baseball, it becomes barely comprehensible. In front of almost 50,000 people and on a national stage, Gray shined, and this is hopefully just the beginning of a long and successful career for him in Oakland.
Moss led off the bottom of the 7th by working a walk off Verlander. Cespedes, next up in the order, laced a Verlander fastball to right field, where Torii Hunter made the catch at the last second, lunging for the ball that he'd apparently lost in the lights. He ended up dropping the ball, but it was correctly ruled to have been lost on the transfer, and Moss couldn't advance.
Smith followed with a pop-up down the left field that Don Kelly did a nice job of running down. Say what you will about Jim Leyland, but it's clear that he made the right decision in putting in Kelly in place of Jhonny Peralta or Andy Dirks, because it's very possible that neither of them makes that play.
Reddick singled on a line drive to right field, and Chili Davis boldly waved Brandon Moss towards third base. The throw to third ended up a bit offline, allowing Moss to slide safely around Cabrera's tag. But again, the A's failed to capitalize in a prime position to score when Vogt struck out swinging to end the inning.
Melvin allowed Gray to start the 8th inning, but had Doolittle throwing in the bullpen. The inning didn't start well — Kelly hit a low line drive that Gray almost snared, but it ended up caroming off his glove and towards Sogard at second base. But by the time Sogard reached the ball, he had no play, and the Tigers had a baserunner. Iglesias successfully laid down a sacrifice that moved Kelly to second, but Jackson struck out for the fourth time on the evening and Hunter popped out to Moss at first base, ending Gray's night.
Gray got a huge standing ovation walking off the field to go along with booming chants of "Sonny! Sonny!" — it was far and away the best outing of his career, and he picked a great night for it.
Alberto Callaspo pinch hit for Sogard leading off the bottom of the 8th, and quickly showed how much the A's liked facing a guy who's named wasn't Verlander, lacing a line-drive double off Drew Smyly, putting a runner in scoring position with none out. Crisp didn't try to sacrifice, thankfully, but didn't do anything productive nonetheless, popping out to Fielder in foul territory. But Lowrie worked a walk, giving Oakland runners on first and second with one out. Once again, the A's were in prime position to take the lead, which this time would've given Grant Balfour an opportunity to come in and close the game out.
Grant Balfour came in for the 9th inning, a move that I'm personally a huge fan of. He got some hearts racing when he threw three straight balls to Cabrera, leading off the inning, but recovered nicely to get the out and work a 1-2-3 inning on fly balls from Cabrera and Fielder and a line drive right to Reddick from Martinez.
This game was starting to develop a pattern — the Tigers weren't threatening much, and the A's were threatening consistently.
Eventually, it happened. It seemed that the A's offense had been crescendoing to a climax ever since Donaldson picked up Oakland's first hit, and that's exactly how it ended up. Cespedes led off the inning with a single through the hole on the left side of the infield, and Smith followed with a single that moved Cespedes to third. Reddick was walked intentionally to load the bases, and Leyland brought in Detroit's 5th starter, Rick Porcello, to face Vogt.
That's where the play that Oakland fans had been envisioning for a full four innings finally took place — Vogt went the other way with a line drive single through the left side, Cespedes trotted home for the A's first run, and that was that.
Vogt got pied, the TBS microphone short-circuited, the Coliseum went ballistic, and even though Sonny Gray didn't get the win, he pitched like a Cy Young winner, not like a rookie who's been in the league since August.
It's definitely worth noting that Vogt had a phenomenal game in more ways than one. Sure, he had the walk-off hit and made all the highlight reels, had a nice ESPN sidebar written about him and what a classic Moneyball, Billy Beane-type find he is. But something that's gone entirely un-discussed is the fact that he called a terrific game. He'd spent a good amount of time catching Gray at AAA Sacramento, but nonetheless, Vogt did a phenomenal job managing the game and holding Gray steady in the rare moments when he needed support.
If there's one sentence you read in this entire recap, I hope it's this one: the A's teams of 2012 and 2013 have been magic. From this point onward, nothing can or will surprise me.