In a decision that extended beyond manager Bob Melvin, all the way up into the “smart people of the front office,” the A’s will turn to the rookie, Sonny Gray, rather than the seasoned veteran and All Star, Bartolo Colon, in the deciding, win-or-go-home Game 5 tonight.
“Obviously we had two great options there with Bartolo,” said Melvin in a conference call Wednesday afternoon.
“We looked at it a bunch of different angles, we have a lot of smart people in our front office and baseball operations and the short of it is, it came down to Sonny’s last game that he pitched in similar conditions in our ballpark.”
Similar conditions? Yeah, you could say that. He is facing off against the exact same team, with the exact same opposing pitcher, as his last start.
That opposing pitcher – Justin Verlander. Yes, he of the Cy Young and MVP winning, no hitter throwing caliber. That daunting force that has faced Oakland three times already in the past two postseasons, and allowed only a single run, on the first at bat of Game 1 last year, and nothing since. Yet, the optimism has to be in the A’s favor heading into tonight.
It’s a rematch of Game 2. A game which saw both starting pitchers exchange zeroes on the scoreboard and leave with no-decisions. It wasn’t until the A’s final at bat that a runner finally touched home plate. The A’s squeezed by 1-0. Still, they won. They won a postseason game started by Justin Verlander.
Getting back to the A’s and their starter for a little bit, though, it’s an interesting decision for sure to start Gray over Colon in this situation. The easy decision, the safe decision, obviously would have been to go with Colon. Aside from a shaky first four batters in Game 1, he was his normal solid self on the mound, pounding the strike zone and placing zero after zero up on the scoreboard. He gave the A’s a chance to beat Max Scherzer in Game 1, and they almost did, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to lose just 3-2 after a long Yoenis Cespedes home run cut the score.
Colon won 18 games for the A’s this season, made the All Star team, and should garner at least some consideration for the Cy Young award (though Max Scherzer will deservedly win).
It’s a conversation I would not have envied Melvin having to make with Colon.
“First of all, imagine how difficult it was for me,” Melvin said. “This guy has 18 wins and has been our ace and been as consistent as you could ever be. And he’s an all‑star on top of it, 40‑year‑old veteran. He made it easy on me. He looked at me and said, ‘Okay, I just want a win.’”
“He’s a man of few words as it is, but it made the conversation difficult on me because he could have had a gripe, and I would not have been surprised if he did.”
“But like I said, he made it easy on me and said, ‘I just want to win.’”
Few words indeed, but those few words speak volumes to the confidence the A’s as a whole have in Sonny Gray.
Melvin described Gray this way:
“He’s a bit of a bulldog. He’s scared of nothing.”
“He, right away, established what he wanted to do in that game. He’s pitched in some big games, and when you talk about experience in these type of games, he really does have this type of experience pitching just five days ago.”
Gray’s teammate, Jed Lowrie, had this to say about his rookie teammate:
“Obviously you see the talent right away, you see the power arm. Especially in Game 2, you see how a young kid is going to react. He went out there with all the confidence in the world and performed really well.”
Gray was 5-3 in the regular season with the Oakland A’s in 10 starts with a 2.67 ERA. In his only postseason start, he pitched eight scoreless innings, allowing just four hits while walking two and striking out nine Tigers’ batters. He obviously won the respect and confidence of his teammates, coaches, and front office. Based on the reaction on social media to the decision announced yesterday, it’s safe to say he’s won the confidence of the fan base he will pitching in front of tonight as well.
By contrast, Verlander had a bit of a down season by his standards, compiling a 13-12 record with a 3.46 ERA. In two regular season starts against the A’s this season, Verlander went 1-1, beating the A’s back on April 13 in a 7-3 game (allowing only one earned run to Oakland) and losing on August 27 in a 3-6 game in which he allowed three earned runs. Still, he is Justin Verlander.
Prior to last postseason, he was a shaky pitcher when the calendar flipped to October. He answered those criticisms last year by posting a 0.56 ERA against Oakland in the ALDS in 2012 and a 1.08 ERA against the Yankees in the ALCS, but then reverted and allowed five earned runs in an abbreviated four inning stint in Game 1 of the World Series against the Giants.
He struggled for parts of this season, but finished the 2013 campaign with two straight outings without allowing a run, followed up by his Game 2 start in which he did not allow a run.
There’s no counting on Verlander having a bad start, actually quite the opposite, but he is beatable, and starting Gray opposite him probably does give the A’s their best chance to win.
“The only thing in sports, and this is documented, the ability to hit,” said Tigers’ Manager Jim Leyland. “I think the pitcher always has the advantage, and particularly if you get one like Justin Verlander and Gray that have abnormally good stuff, really good stuff, that makes it more difficult.”
“Gray the other night, his poise was unbelievable,” Leyland continued. “He didn’t ruffle at all. Just a really, really good looking young pitcher.”
So, do the Tigers have any advantage having seen Gray already?
“I’m not really sure we liked what we saw. It was pretty good,” said Leyland. “But at least we have seen him now. It does make some difference.”
“With the stuff he was featuring, it certainly does not mean we’re going to be in a comfort zone, but it makes you a little more comfortable, now that you know the action on the ball, the great breaking ball that he has.”
“This kid is a great‑looking young pitcher, so it will be better for us than it was the other night, hopefully. Now that we have seen him, it does make some difference.”
The key word in that response there was “hopefully.” Leyland did not sound like he was convinced that the Tigers would fare any better against Gray if he has the same quality “stuff” on the mound tonight.
The Tigers have not yet proven that they can get to Gray, and until they do, the advantage is with the A’s young phenom pitcher. The Tigers have been sitting fastball, and Gray’s devastating curve, combined with his plus fastball gives him an advantage over the overwhelming fastball reliant Bartolo Colon. He has the pitch repertoire to keep the Detroit lineup off balance.
Oakland has proven in the past that they can score on Verlander, even if it is in small amounts. This will likely wind up being a game that is decided by a run or two, and the intensity that Gray brings to the mound, combined with his confidence carry over from Game 2, should sway the odds in Oakland’s favor.
As for Gray himself, “he was excited, same type of look he had when we told him he was going to pitch the second game of the series,” said Melvin. “He’s a confidence guy and he had a smile on his face and you could see his mind starting to do its preparation right then and there. But he looked awfully confident and had a big smile on his face.”
If he repays the confidence shown in him tonight, there will be plenty more people smiling than just Sonny Gray around Oakland.