OAKLAND, Calif. — The Athletics came into the postseason with the thought that, having been there last year in a five-game loss to Detroit in the American League Division Series, they were better prepared for the Detroit Tigers this time.
So what happens? Rookies Sonny Gray and Stephen Vogt, two players who watched the ALDS on television last year, gave the Athletics their first win over the Tigers on Saturday night, 1-0.
Gray pitched eight innings, and while he didn’t get credit for the win that came on Vogt’s ninth-inning walk-off single, he was one player whom men in both clubhouses couldn’t stop talking about.
The win went to Grant Balfour, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning before the Athletics loaded the bases with none out to set up Vogt for a single over a drawn-in infield. Balfour will take the win, but he tried to give it away.
“The winner tonight was Sonny Gray,” the A’s closer said. “He was ‘The Man.”’
Gray allowed four hits and pitched out of a huge jam in the fifth inning, and A’s manager Bob Melvin was so impressed that he didn’t even get his bullpen stirring when the Tigers had men at first and third with one out. A strikeout and Vogt’s throw to cut down Jose Iglesias attempting to steal ended the inning, and the Tigers got one more runner the rest of the night.
The ultimate winner was Gray’s team. The A’s lost Game 1, and a loss Saturday might have thrown the water that left them howling “We’re melting.” Their bats do seem to liquefy in the postseason against Tigers starter Justin Verlander, and that was the case again Saturday as the A’s came up empty for seven more innings against the 2011 A.L. Cy Young Award winner and MVP.
The A’s, after failing to scratch out a win for Gray when they put two men on in the eighth, got a run home for Balfour in the ninth. And so they were able to board a late-night flight to Detroit with the series tied, everybody smiling and knowing that a split of the two road games would mean Game 5 back at the O.co Coliseum.
And because Gray, ostensibly the club’s fourth starter, did so well in Game 2, the A’s have Jarrod Parker, a dominant starter from May on, to pitch in Game 3 Monday against Tigers A.L. ERA leader Anibal Sanchez. Parker pitched in Games 1 and 5 last year and got the call for the Detroit opener because he has pitched under that Comerica Park pressure and done well, even in losing.
And this time Parker won’t be pitted against Verlander, which he was both times last year.
“It was an amazing job from Sonny,” center fielder Coco Crisp said. “It was amazing by the both of them. But we got this one, and now we go to Detroit and see what happens.”
The ninth inning started with Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith getting their second hits of the night. Unlike the fifth inning, when that meant there were A’s runners on first and second and nothing happened, this time Smith’s hit shot past first base, allowing Cespedes to race to third. Reliever Al Alburquerque intentionally walked Josh Reddick, bringing up Vogt.
The left-handed hitter, whose contract was bought by the A’s for $150,000 in April just to fill their Triple-A roster, has morphed into a solid big league catcher. His seventh-inning battle with Verlander was a terrific 10-pitch at-bat, even though he struck out. Before he did, Vogt fouled off seven pitches. That at-bat ended Verlander’s night, leaving him with 22 consecutive scoreless innings against the A’s in postseason play.
In the ninth, with the bases loaded, there was none of that prolonged agony. He picked on a 1-1 pitch from reliever Rick Porcello and drove it past shortstop Iglesias for the winner.
“It was fun,” Vogt said. “It was what every kid dreams of. You come up in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. You dream you’re getting the game-winner in the postseason.”
On this night, it was no dream.