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Tonight's pitcher's duel: as good as it gets in late May

Thearon W. Henderson

Tonight, in late May, October-quality baseball will be played in East Oakland. Two of the American League's best are going toe to toe at the Coliseum, and while the 52nd game of the year is never a big game, this is a big game. Sonny Gray, whose 1.99 ERA is tops among American League starters, is taking on Max Scherzer, last year's AL Cy Young Award winner. His numbers (6-1, 2.59 ERA) aren't too shabby either.

Magnifying the importance of one of the best on-paper pitcher's duels of the season is the context: twice in a row, now, has Oakland fallen in the playoffs at the hands of this Detroit squad. Count 2006, and it's three times. The last time the Athletics faced Scherzer, he held them scoreless through six innings and then weathered a brief, Yoenis Cespedes-induced storm to finish seven strong innings and help his team take Game 1 of the ALDS. The last time the Tigers faced Gray, he surrendered three runs in five-plus innings, most of the damage coming on a two-run blast from Miguel Cabrera in the 4th. Of course, there was also Gray's start in Game 2, in which he held Detroit innings scoreless over eight, marginally out-dueling Justin Verlander in the process.

So while the crowd tonight might not even be one-third as big as the group of 48,292 that packed the Coliseum on October 5 of last year to see Gray pitch, and while the game is being televised locally instead of nationally, this is as big as a regular-season game more than a month before the All-Star Break could ever be.

And while yesterday's 10-0 drubbing of the Tigers was nice, it came against Drew Smyly, a pitcher who served as a setup man last year and, while talented, can't be credited with too much of Detroit's playoff success against the A's. And while Tommy Milone extended his streak of impressively dominant starts to four, he wasn't even a part of Oakland's rotation during last year's playoffs. In short, yesterday's game was fun to watch, yet did relatively little when it came to gaining the revenge that Oakland fans crave.

Though nothing short of beating the Tigers in a playoff series, or winning the World Series, would adequately avenge 2012 and 2013, a win tonight would be a good start. It's always good to show you can beat elite pitching, a victory would preclude the possibility of Oakland losing the series at home and put it halfway toward a sweep, and it would give the nation concrete evidence that the A's are capable of consistently beating an elite-level team, something they've struggled with so far this season.

So tonight's matchup of last year's AL Cy Young and April's AL Pitcher of the Month is a big one, emotionally. It'll feel like a typical Tuesday night at the Coliseum, with temperatures dipping into the high 50s and a sparse crowd on the heels of yesterday's sellout. The game won't even have the Bay Area sports spotlight, with the Giants playing the Cubs at 7:15pm and the United States Men's National Soccer Team kicking off its pre-World Cup sendoff series against Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park, also at 7pm. If you're driving to tonight's game from the Peninsula, good luck.

But despite the crowd, and the weather, and the under-the-radar nature of a late October-level pitching matchup, tonight is the real deal. Treating the game as ever so slightly more important than a typical weeknight in May isn't unfair. No matter the result, nothing drastic will change about either team's season after the 9th inning. But it's OK to be just a little more amped up than normal, a little more excited than is reasonable for the first day after a long weekend.

At the very least, we can hope that this matchup plays out in the regular season and not in October. Tonight is intriguing, compelling baseball. The same matchup in October would feel like a death march.