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October 10, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Five Preview: Tigers at Athletics

by Paul Sporer

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I still have Game Two as both the best of this series and the playoffs at large, but Game Four was thrilling throughout with potential Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer wiggling out of a bases-loaded jam en route to earning the second Detroit win of the series. It’s worth noting that he did not start the game, but rather threw two electrifying innings of relief.

Tigers (Justin Verlander) at Athletics (Sonny Gray) 8:07 p.m. ET
PECOTA odds of winning: Tigers 56.3%, Athletics 43.7%

Projected Starting Lineups:

Tigers vs. Gray (R)

Athletics vs. Verlander (R)

Austin Jackson (R) CF

Coco Crisp (S) CF

Torii Hunter (R) RF

Jed Lowrie (S) SS

Miguel Cabrera (R) 3B

Josh Donaldson (R) 3B

Prince Fielder (L) 1B

Brandon Moss (L) 1B

Victor Martinez (S) DH

Yoenis Cespedes (R) LF

Jhonny Peralta (R) LF

Seth Smith (L) DH

Alex Avila (L) C

Josh Reddick (L) RF

Omar Infante (R) 2B

Stephen Vogt (L) C

Jose Iglesias (R) SS

Eric Sogard (L) 2B

The Set-Up
It looked grim for the Tigers after four scoreless innings, but they exploded for eight runs over the next four and sealed an 8-6 Game Four victory to send it back to Oakland. Both teams pushed their Game Two starters to the fore with Detroit having used its no. 1 in relief to get to this point and Oakland simply bypassing Bartolo Colon in favor of rookie Sonny Gray. For my money, Gray and Justin Verlander combined to give us the best game of the young playoffs, so it’s hard not be excited for a rematch. The two went toe-to-toe and threw 15 scoreless innings, scattering eight hits and three walks with 20 strikeouts last Saturday night. What more could they possibly do for an encore?

Focusing In
The Tigers would be best served not waiting three or four innings to show any sign of life at the dish. Hits—let alone runs—will be tough to come by again, but perhaps some hard contact or even some strong plate appearances with deep counts can at least chip away at Gray if he’s as sharp as last weekend.

To that end, Austin Jackson has been getting crushed for his efforts in this series and it hasn’t been completely undeserved with 10 strikeouts in 16 plate appearances, but maybe his broken-bat, go-ahead single in the seventh inning on Tuesday was just what he needed to break out of an awful slump. Detroit thrives when Jackson is on base. They went 69-38 (.645) when he had at least a hit or a walk and then just 8-14 (.364) in the 22 games he was kept off the basepaths entirely.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Yoenis Cespedes, who had yet another two-hit game—his third in the series. He and teammate Coco Crisp have a combined 14 hits in the series (seven apiece) or nearly half the total of the entire Tigers team (30). Regular traffic on the bases is so important during the playoffs and these two along with Seth Smith (five hits of his own) have put the A’s on the board with regularity over these last two games. It is no coincidence that Crisp was 0-for-5 with three walks in the first two games, in which they managed just three runs, but then he was 7-for-9 in the next two games and they plated 12 runs.

Meanwhile, Jhonny Peralta has delivered exactly the offensive boost manager Jim Leyland was looking for when he inserted him into the lineup. Peralta is 3-for-7 in the last two games with a game-tying three-run homer in Game Four and five RBIs in all. He has more than made up for the run he allowed via a noodle-armed throw on a sacrifice fly that allowed Stephen Vogt to score back in Game Three.

With Colon being skipped over, he will be available in the bullpen for manager Bob Melvin, though he doesn’t quite fit into the relief mold that we saw from Scherzer on Tuesday as Colon is unlikely to come in and throw smoke. I’m not sure we will see him in a late-inning situation, but rather in an early-or-middle inning situation should Gray either struggle or simply pitch okay.

Matchups to Watch
Verlander and Gray helped hold the leadoff hitters to a combined 0-for-8 with Jackson fanning four times. A similar effort could push us toward another drum-tight battle where the first run wins it. Beyond those two catalysts who are somewhat obvious, I would tab Prince Fielder and Josh Donaldson as the key guys.

Fielder has gone 3-for-7 in the last two games, but with no pop. He was signed to that hefty deal to hit homers. One in this game would erase all of the “struggle” talk from 2013. Donaldson, a legitimate MVP candidate, picked the worst time to have a four-game slump. While he does have a hit in each of his last three, he is also devoid of power and has just one walk compared to five strikeouts.

My Prediction
Verlander edges the rookie this time in another masterpiece. Tigers win 3-1.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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