Saturday, October 12, 2013

Tigers Advance on Shades of Gray

By Jeff Kallman

Sonny Gray is learning the lessons rookies usually learn if they intend to build careers as good as Gray's performance in American League division series Game 2 was. It's a shame he had to learn a couple of key ones in a win-or-be-gone game that sends the Detroit Tigers to the American League Championship Series and not his own Oakland Athletics.

It takes awhile for rookies to learn what to do when their curve balls aren't working quite right, their fastballs have early inconsistencies negating setups for the curves, and the other guys — who probably studied enough film of Game 2 preparing for him, and who figured out it was time to be patient at the plate against the kid with the live stuff — begin sitting on those fastballs.

"Fastball command, as a starting pitcher, is a key for every game," Gray said manfully enough after the 3-0 ousting, "and tonight, I was just up. I was 1-0, 2-0 a lot, and you just can't do that. Eventually it's going to come back to hurt you, and tonight it did."

And it takes about as long for them to figure out that, when they stop going away to one of the American League's most dangerous hitters, even if said hitter has been ailing of late, and they come just enough up and just enough under the letters, they're going to get creamed.

Which is exactly what Miguel Cabrera did to Gray and the A's in the top of the fourth Thursday night. Busting up a scoreless tie that was already hard enough earned, Cabrera's 2-run homer (every other commentator seems to have said it, so I might as well join the fun) felt an awful lot like the jack St. Louis's David Freese belted against Pittsburgh rookie Garret Cole in their Game 5 the night before.

On a night Justin Verlander looked too much like his classic self, too much like the pitcher who beat the A's in Game 5 last year, catching the A's swinging anxiously and taking a no-hitter to the seventh inning, Gray was spotted early and often by Tigers manager Jim Leyland. He told the TBS broadcasting crew in a between-innings interview that Gray wasn't as sharp as he'd been last weekend.

Indeed, Gray needed help from the Tigers to squirm out of a second-inning jam and he got it, too. From Prince Fielder, taking off for second on a hit-and-run. The problem was Gray striking out Jhonny Peralta (restored to shortstop, giving the Tigers a slightly better outfield defense via Don Kelly in left, considering Verlander's strikeout volumes and fly ball tendencies), which caught Fielder flatfooted almost halfway to second. A 2-4-3-6 sequence of throws and Fielder's rundown ended with the inning.

Even so, Gray himself managed somehow to keep the Teigers hitless until the fourth. Torii Hunter cued a one-out, full-count fastball up the pipe for the game's first hit. Cabrera checked in at the plate. All series long the A's had kept Cabrera quiet with a diet of pitches away. Nobody now seemed to think about reminding Gray, "Sonny, he may be hurting but he can still be swinging. This is the guy you can't afford to come a little bit in on."

"We were trying to get in there on him a little bit," Gray admitted after the game. "It stayed out over the plate a little too much." That's like saying it flew, parabolically, a little too much over the left field fence, ricocheting off some steps behind the fence and back onto the field.

Gray should only know that Cabrera respects him already. "To me, he's a great pitcher," he told reporters amidst the Tigers' celebration. "The first time we saw him, he pitched an excellent game. Today, we were able to be patient, try not to make mistakes and tried to wait and swing at our pitch ... We had a different plan."

Somebody also didn't think about advising Gray, "Look, Sonny, you've got a great career ahead of you. But this isn't Game Seven of the 1965 World Series. You're not Sandy Koufax. (Relax, kid, nobody else is, either.) And you can't live on one pitch in an elimination game." Gray may have been unable to throw his curve ball for strikes early enough and often enough, but it wouldn't have been a terrible idea to show a few more curve balls just to plant a few ideas.

Why pitch the comparatively inexperienced Gray instead of the extremely experienced Bartolo Colon? Easy. A's manager Bob Melvin went with both Gray's virtuoso Game 2 and his overall 1.66 ERA in Coliseum. He also went with one sobering item on Colon's resume: Colon hasn't beaten the Tigers since 2003 and has 8 losses in 14 starts since against them.

Gray hadn't faced the cream of the league's hitters prior to Game 2, really, since coming up late in the season, but he sure didn't pitch Game 2 as though the quality of the opposing lineup terrified him.

Not that it would have mattered all that much as one after another A's bat looked like a paper cutout against Verlander. The Tigers' right-hander could have thrown the A's cantaloupes and Thursday night's A's wouldn't have hit him for much more than two measly singles. (Yoenis Cispedes in the seventh; Josh Reddick in the eighth.)

Oh, for the A's to have the gift of Joaquin Benoit all over again. It's not that Benoit was necessarily the second coming of Jose Valderde, the man he supplanted following Valverde's 2012 postseason implosions, but Benoit and his 22 saves since taking the closing gig in June suddenly didn't look like a guy who'd mounted a 2.01 ERA on the regular season.

And with two outs, Jed Lowrie dumped a quail into center field. Then, Benoit plunked Cespedes with a 2-2 changeup, though you could see the Tiger dugout growling that Cespedes swung. Two out, two on, and the tying run coming up. The problem was that Seth Smith was only too well aware of it. Never mind just why he was hitting in the lineup ahead of a fellow (Brandon Moss) with thirty bombs on the regular season.

Patience is a virtue against Benoit. You time his fastball, you avoid his changeup as though it's carrying swine flu. The one thing you don't do against this guy is try hitting a 6-run homer on every swing. Ball one. Called strike. Fastball high, ball two. Did Smith forget completely how Benoit bagged him to end Game 4 — when Smith was also the potential tying run?

For that matter, did Smith — who's been around a bit — forget how he'd been the closing out of the 2007 World Series for the Colorado Rockies? When Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon struck him out with a flourish?

You guessed it. Here comes a fastball. No timing, swinging under it, half-lazy fly to right, Smith hanging his head in disgust out of the batter's box, and Hunter can't wait to snap his glove around the ball. Then, Verlander lets himself breathe like a human being in the dugout, and Hunter takes a very pregnant pause, arms stretched, before trotting in to the mound, for the victory performance of the Maori haka dance made popular by the New Zealand rugby team.

Six times the A's have taken division series to a fifth game. They've lost all six of them. Thursday night was the only mathematical elimination game these A's faced this year. These A's, who'd been 30-to-1 shots at getting to the postseason at all, whose payroll combined with Tampa Bays was barely more than the Washington Nationals' alone, also forgot one of their critical strengths: using the whole roster.

You may have noticed that of the six hits the A's managed against Verlander this series three of them came from right-handed hitters. But Chris Young and Kurt Suzuki got no swings at all, against Verlander or any other Tiger pitching this set. Melvin, like his boss Billy Beane, loves to play the matchups. Packing the lineup with left-handed hitting against a Verlander who was more vulnerable to right-handed hitting all season long went against their usual grain.

"Our guys are frustrated with the way the game went and some of the at-bats," Melvin said after the game. "Then again, we still have a lot to be proud of. We expected to go a little further than this this year. But at the end of the day, we did have a great season. It was a little more disappointing this year than it was last year."

The day's ended for these A's. The Tigers' day has just begun. Only they've got their own recent history to overthrow even with Verlander, Max Scherzer, Fielder, Cabrera if he's fed anything else over the middle or a little in, and Hunter, whose clubhouse presence has been as invaluable as his play. Including now, they've been to four postseasons in eight years. They've lost two World Series (including last year's staggering sweep by the San Francisco Giants) and one ALCS. (To the Texas Rangers, who'd lose the 2011 World Series dramatically enough.)

How long the Tigers' day lasts from here depends on several things. Particularly the Red Sox.

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