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October 5, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game 2: Tigers at A's

by Paul Sporer

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Bartolo Colon opened only one window in Game 1, but the Tigers stormed through it, building a three-run first-inning lead that would prove insurmountable. Colon regained his command and kept his team close, but Max Scherzer’s one mistake – a two-run moonshot to Yoenis Cespedes that still hasn’t landed – wasn’t enough for the A’s to maintain home-field advantage.

Tigers (Justin Verlander) at Athletics (Sonny Gray) 9:07 p.m. ET
PECOTA odds of winning: Tigers 53.9%, Athletics 46.1%

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) DH

Victor Martinez (S) DH

Yoenis Cespedes (R) LF

Alex Avila (L) C

Josh Reddick (R) RF

Omar Infante (R) 2B

Alberto Callaspo (S) 2B

Andy Dirks (L) LF

Daric Barton (L) 1B

Jose Iglesias (R) SS

Stephen Vogt (L) C

The Set-Up

The A’s have a 1-0 deficit and a date with Justin Verlander. Terrifying, but don’t expect rookie Sonny Gray to crumble under the pressure. He has been stone cold throughout his 64-inning rookie season. If Verlander is still in his September form – which looks an awful lot like Scherzer circa Friday night – it might not matter.

Focusing In

While Verlander dipped from his superhuman 2011-2012 level, there was a bit of an overreaction to the fade. This wasn’t a collapse on the level of Tim Lincecum from 2011 (2.74 ERA) to 2012 (5.18 ERA); it wasn’t even a collapse. It was a more human performance, as Verlander’s command abandoned him for spells, resulting in more baserunners and making the homers a lot more damaging. His stuff remained among the most electric in the game, even as the average velocity on his fastball dropped from 95 to 94. He raised his velocity in every month but June, though, including averages of 94.77 and 94.79 in August and September.

A hobbled Miguel Cabrera was able to do damage early in Game 1 with an RBI single back up the box, but he was noticeably pained to do just about anything throughout the night and was eventually removed for defensive purposes in the eighth inning. The top seven hitters in the Detroit lineup had hits, but the 5-6-7 hitters each had a pair, including Alex Avila, who stayed hot after a .953-OPS September. Avila labored through most of 2013, with four months of sub-.600 OPS’s. If at least one of Avila, Victor Martinez, or Omar Infante is contributing regularly, then the burden on Cabrera is severely lessened.

Cespedes was the only one to get to Scherzer, with a triple in addition to his rocket ship home run, but in fairness to the rest of the lineup, what we saw Friday was some of the best work of Scherzer’s career – a remarkable statement when you consider his season. Five A’s struck out more than once and three took a trio of punchouts.

It could’ve been worse for Oakland. Had Colon not settled down for five strong innings, the A’s would’ve dipped deep into their bullpen, putting the onus on a rookie to go long on Saturday night. They only needed a pair of relievers, and the five days off made even the disaster scenario a lot more tenable. Instead they have a mostly unscathed bullpen ready.

Matchup to Watch

The Tigers were able to limit Oakland to two runs despite leadoff hitter Coco Crisp reaching base in three of his four plate appearances, thanks to a trio of walks. Testing fate like that is good way to get in trouble, especially considering how much damage Crisp can do with his legs. With the quick-strike power offense found in spots two through five of the Oakland lineup, keeping Crisp off of the bases becomes paramount, given how few runs are likely to be scored on either side. Of course, Crisp can do the damage on his own, too, as he did with his 22 homers in 2013.

My Prediction

September wasn’t quite a perfect replica of Vintage Verlander, but it was a reasonable facsimile with a 2.27 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 31 percent strikeout rate. If that version shows up in October then we will see a near-repeat of Friday night with exploding fastballs and devastating secondary stuff. Oakland may even get another home run, but it won’t be enough unless Gray is next-to-perfect. Tigers take it 4-1 heading back to Motown.

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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