High drama came to Oakland in the final game of the 2013 divisional round, with the protagonists of the Game Two pitchers’ duel back on the hill. The script, as it unfolded, had a familiar ring to anyone who watched the NLDS end the previous night.
Game 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 F Tigers 0 0 0 2 0 1 0 0 0 3 A's 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 (Tigers win series 3-2) WPS 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Tigers 5 13 5 39 10 12 4 1 1 A's 5 5 5 6 6 11 7 7 10 WPS Base: 150.4 Best Plays: 32.0 Last Play: 3.8 Grand Total: 186.2
The byword early on in this game was not excitement, but tension. There were no hits through three, and without the proximate chance of a run coming across, the WPS numbers stayed almost at rock bottom.
Then Detroit got on the board and still wasn’t allowing Oakland any baserunners. The combination of a multi-run lead and shutdown innings against the trailing team kills the excitement of the game with a stick. That explains the low score for a game that had a chance to be historic rounding into the late innings.
The only real suspense remaining after the top of the sixth was whether Justin Verlander would take his no-hitter, or even perfect game, all the way. The answers in reverse order were no (Josh Reddick walking in the sixth) and no (Yoenis Cespedes singling in the seventh).
At that point, fan interest likely dropped to meet WPS’s interest. It felt like the only way Oakland could come back to win is if Jim Leyland sent Jose Valverde out to pitch the ninth. Pulling Verlander for Joaquin Benoit held a bit of promise but really wasn’t an adequate substitute.
A’s manager Bob Melvin had a decision very similar to that of Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle in the previous day’s NLDS Game Five and resolved it the same way. Instead of starting the late-30s veteran pitcher who had given up a big inning early on the way to losing Game One (Bartolo Colon/A.J. Burnett), he went with the hot-handed rookie who dominated the opposition in Game Two (Sonny Gray/Gerrit Cole). The decision met the same fate: he pitched okay but gave up a two-run bomb he couldn’t afford when his opponent had his A-game.
While this subject is on my mind, I have a delayed second-guess of Hurdle. Those who don’t care are welcome to skip the next two paragraphs.
Burnett may have been the better choice for the deciding game, and not just because Cole was a more willing and flexible option to come out of the bullpen. One argument against Burnett was that he is volatile, great one start, terrible the next. That might actually have been a point in his favor. His opponent, Adam Wainwright, was expected to be very good, even close to unbeatable (which is how he turned out).
Pittsburgh could anticipate needing a great performance from its starter. Burnett had a good chance of delivering one. While he also was at risk of throwing up a clunker, his team was in a situation where a crash-and-burn start was not that much worse than merely a so-so one, compared to the difference between so-so and great. Add that calculus to having Cole in reserve and ready to pitch several innings should Burnett need a quick hook, and there is a case to be made.
This doesn’t mean Melvin made a mistake. Gray probably was the better option, but lightning would have had to strike twice for it to have mattered, and it didn’t.
Melvin also made some lineup shuffles, moving Cespedes to the cleanup spot and dropping Brandon Moss from fourth to sixth. I thought at first he might be getting his righties to the top of the order to counter Verlander’s significant reverse platoon splits this season. (He has virtually none for his career.) But that wasn’t so.
Melvin had four left-handers in the lineup and three switch-hitters who would be facing Justin as lefties. Seven lefty bats to face a pitcher doing worse against righties does not seem a good idea—but this night, it’s tough to think of an idea that would have worked against Verlander that did not involve a time machine and the 1929 A’s.
Gray had some early control trouble, sometimes missing the zone badly. This made a second-inning tactic by Leyland most puzzling. With a full count on Jhonny Peralta and one out, Prince Fielder went for second on the pitch. Peralta fanned, and Fielder was caught in an ugly 2-4-3-6 rundown.
Gray has serious stuff that can produce lots of strikeouts. He was also fairly wild and had a good chance of walking Peralta. Both these factors reduce the chance of contact on which this play depends. It was a dubious time to try it, even disregarding it was Fielder. Indeed, the current era with its record-high strikeouts is a dubious time to try that play.
(Once again, FanGraphs counts the strikeout and caught stealing as separate plays. If you consider them part of a whole, you may add 1.3 points to the WPS Index given above. I suspect you won’t bother.)
But it got Gray out of the second, and he seemed to be getting back in control before he gave up his first hit to Torii Hunter in the fourth. (This happened right after Dennis Eckersley mentioned the embryonic double no-hitter going on. Way to jinx, Eck. Wait ’til your A’s are up next time. [Joking, in case you wondered.] ) This brought up Miguel Cabrera, and on the second pitch, Gray tried to blow one by inside.
Cabrera, we all know, has been hurting, and before this game had hit just four singles in the series. As this FanGraphs article, posted just before Game Five, stated, Oakland had been pitching him mostly outside, where with his hurting lower half he couldn’t drive a pitch over the wall. The few pitches that were inside, where upper-body strength and bat speed could pull one out, more often than not were mistakes, intended to be elsewhere.
It looked like this wasn’t a mistake, as Stephen Vogt showed his mitt inside. Yet it was a mistake all the same. Cabrera’s healthy upper half sent it out, and for the second night in a row, that was all the team striking first would need.
Oakland was perhaps still barely in the game, but an insurance run in the sixth off Gray and reliever Dan Otero cut off even that slim hope. Benoit did provide a touch of excitement closing in the ninth, allowing as many hits in one innings as Verlander had in eight. Seth Smith came up as the tying run but could only fly out harmlessly to right field.
Before the game, TBS’s on-field reporter mentioned that this game would raise again the question of whether A’s general manager Billy Beane’s “method of team building” works in the postseason. I’ve never heard that euphemism before. And it’s getting harder to argue that there’s nothing but variance going on here. It may still be true, but the argument is more difficult to make.
I’m given to understand there was some bizarre Detroit celebration after the final out, so horrifying as to make at least one observer choose to become a Red Sox fan for the upcoming ALCS. I had my monitor switched over from TV to computer by this time, so I did not get to see it. I suspect that, like replays of Manny Machado‘s injury, I am better off not seeing it. If you think I have a need to know, you may recount the Lovecraftian nightmare in the comments. This should be interesting.
So it will be Detroit facing Boston for the pennant, starting Saturday night at Fenway Park. This year, it will be Fox covering the ALCS, meaning Saturday night will be the start of WPS Recap’s second, and final, Tim-ism Watch. If you want to find out what strange stuff McCarver said without actually having to listen—sorta like me and the Detroit celebration—you know where to come.