Sunday, October 6, 2013

Oakland’s Shades of Gray

By Jeff Kallman

When a special performance by a great pitcher trying to shake off an off year (for him) ends up going for nothing, you can't help feeling for him. When he's matched just about pitch-for-pitch by a touted but barely tested rookie having the game of his young career thus far, and in an American League division series no less, you can't help hoping there was a good stiff drink awaiting him when it was all over.

The bad news is that the sole irrevocable law of sports is that somebody has to lose. The worse news is when you watch a great veteran and a hungry rookie going mano-a-mano on the mound and they give you all the evidence you need that neither of them deserve to lose.

A Justin Verlander who punches out 11 men in 7 innings' work — including 6 called punchouts out of his first seven Ks — and leaves with a shutout in the works following as magnificent a pitching duel as the postseason has seen in recent years is a man who can hold himself proudly. Even on a night when he was outlasted by a Sonny Gray who spent about half the season in the minors with two callups, including the one that saw him taking struggling Tommy Milhone's place in the rotation, but who made a small rush of noise when he won the American League West division clincher.

Gray's only Saturday night blemish was striking out two fewer than Verlander while surrendering the same number of hits (four) and one more walk. He manhandled the Tigers equal to Verlander's manhandling the Athletics. And he, too, left with a shutout in the works.

"Runs get tougher and tougher to come by the deeper you go in a game like that," said Athletics manager Bob Melvin after the game. "And you had two starting pitchers who were just electric tonight."

"This," said the Tigers' grand old man, manager Jim Leyland, in the post-game press conference, "is postseason pitching. That's what you saw tonight at its absolute best. Everybody had to battle at their best tonight because both pitchers were outstanding."

And in the end it came down to the Detroit bullpen running out of fuel first, and in the bottom of the ninth. When Al Albuquerque, fresh off a 2-punchout beginning to close the Oakland eighth, got pried open by two base hits (Yoenis Cespedes, Seth Smith) and didn't dare pitch to Josh Reddick with that no-out scenario, putting him on and yielding to Rick Porcello.

And Stephen Vogt — a rookie catcher with a mere sixteen RBIs and a mere .242 batting average on the regular season, who'd fought Verlander arduously in the seventh, fouling off five straight before taking a ball, fouling another, taking another ball, fouling one more, then striking out on a high bullet — shot one past Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias with the infield in for the game-winning single, Cespedes running home as though his train was about to leave the platform without him.

Gray and Verlander were the first starting pitchers in postseason history to strike out nine or more each without surrendering even an unearned run. But Gray's poise — especially in the top of the third, when Torii Hunter looked ready to bark and bite after a high and tight fastball, causing the rookie to do nothing but bear further down and strike him out on the next three pitches — in hand with his stupefying postseason debut made him even more the story than Verlander's gallant performance and Vogt's game-winner.

It didn't help that he struck out the side magnificently in the third — including no less than Miguel Cabrera swinging violently through Gray's fastball for the third out. That strike-em-out/throw-em-out double play ending the fourth was no excuse-me stuff, either. But to find another major league rookie who threw eight scoreless or more with nine strikeouts or more in postseason play, you have to reach back to the first Reagan Administration, when Baltimore's Mike Boddicker did it to the White Sox in the 1983 American League Championship Series.

"There was a lot of adrenaline going, especially early," Gray told ESPN after the game. "And you couldn't ask for a better finish than this, but there was adrenaline, and this place was packed."

Gray seemed respectful of Verlander without necessarily seeming intimidated by facing him. "There's been a lot of talk," he said. "It seemed like a lot of people weren't giving us a lot of a shot to win this game." Pause for the traditional rookie smooshie of a pie in the puss before he can finish the thought. (Vogt got the walk-off smooshie and a Gatorade shampoo.) Then, he said he'd be ready to pitch wherever and whenever.

"It was must win for us," Gray said. "We knew that going in."

That's a polite way to describe the position in which the A's were left by Max Scherzer's Game One demolition night. That performance should have put the lie to charges that Scherzer's pitched biggest this year only when he's had a boatload of run support.

He had only three runs to work with but her struck out 11 in 7 innings (who the hell did he think he was — Verlander?), his only legitimate mistake being the meatball he served Cespides in the bottom of the seventh, a meatball Cespides promptly served into the left field seats. But he shook that off to get the next three outs like he'd been waiting for them with open arms.

Still, even Scherzer's jewel just might be outshone by the Gray-Verlander duel that evened the set at a game apiece. Even an A's fan would have to admit Verlander pitched just too well to have to lose. Even a Tigers fan would have to admit they'd been manhandled by Gray as if he'd been doing it for far more seasoning than he actually has.

A banner hung on the middle deck rim of the Coliseum said it best: Forecast: Sonny with Chance of Strikeouts.

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