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This writer, for the second straight year, had the chance to see Justin Verlander open the postseason for the Tigers. That's too good an opportunity to pass up; here's how it felt in the seats at Comerica Park for Game 1 of the ALDS.
Justin Verlander wasn't transcendent, but he was plenty awesome, and the Tigers picked up a win, defeating the A's 3-1 on Saturday night.
It is not over until it is over.
But you can't help thinking the Athletics' best chance to get back into this game has come and gone.
In the top of the eighth -- with Justin Verlander out of the game, having thrown 128 pitches -- Jim Leyland did what usually does, and summoned setup man Joaquin Benoit from the bullpen. Stephen Drew led off, and grounded back to Benoit. But Yoenis Cespedes laced a single into left-center. And then Brandon Moss saw a change-up and put a charge into it ...
That's how terribly close the A's game to tying Game 1. Instead it's still 3-1 Tigers, as Benoit struck out Josh Reddick to escape the inning. In the ninth, the A's will undoubtedly face closer Jose Valverde, who was almost perfect last year but has been a bit less perfect this year. So no, it's not over. Not quite.
If the Tigers wind up winning this game -- a likelihood, considering they've got a 3-1 lead after seven innings -- the big story's going to be Justin Verlander, who gave up a leadoff home run to Coco Crisp in the first inning but blanked the A's afterward in his seven-inning stint.
But the second-biggest story might be the return of Pat Neshek, who relieved A's starter Jarrod Parker in the seventh with one out and two runners aboard. Neshek salvaged the inning, retiring Omar Infante on a grounder and striking out Austin Jackson, keeping the A's within striking distance.
Just three days ago, Neshek's 23-hour-old son Gehrig died, cause yet unknown. But Neshek, reportedly with the encouragement of his wife, wanted to pitch. And considering how well he pitched in the regular season after joining the A's in August, he was named to the Division Series roster Saturday morning.
Well, now the A's are in trouble.
After striking out the side in the sixth with only 14 pitches, Justin Verlander's got a 3-1 lead. Then again, he's also thrown 104 pitches so he's got almost no chance of throwing a complete game.
The A's have been grumbling about the strike zone, and this called strike three to Josh Reddick was almost certainly outside the box ...
... but I gotta say, while I haven't seen every pitch -- I've been writing some -- a bunch of the strikes that Oakland hitters have been grumbling about and Twitters have been bitching about were actually right on the edge of the zone. You know, this is what great pitchers do. Throwing 95 doesn't really mean a lot unless you're hitting your spots, and Verlander does.
He is the best baseball pitcher alive right now, after all.
Jarrod Parker's looking good, too. He zipped through the Tigers in the bottom of the sixth, and it's still 3 to 1.
One of the reasons the Tigers were supposed to win their division by a dozen games was that Alex Avila was supposed to be something close to the historically great catcher he was last season. If you believe in adjusted OPS, it was one of the 50-best seasons by a catcher in history. It was even better before he tired toward the end of the year.
This year, he's been perfectly average -- his OPS+ is 100, which is the very definition of average. He's still a net positive, of course, because it's nearly impossible to find an average-hitting catcher, but he certainly hasn't been as productive as he was last year.
But last year he was great in the regular season, and absolutely, stunningly, completely dreadful last year in the playoffs. -- 3-for-41 with a homer. I think he'd take an average regular season if it were paired with a monster postseason.
He's off to a good start, then:
That's a solo shot, and it put the Tigers up 3-1. And with Justin Verlander on the mound, that has to feel like a 5-1 lead.
As I noted before the game, the Tigers present a tough match-up for the A's in at least one respect.
But as I also noted, the A's did play better than the Tigers over the last six months -- well, the last three months for sure -- with more wins and a better run differential in a tougher division. They must have done something better than the Tigers, right?
Well, yeah. To name just one thing, they fielded better. They fielded a lot better. According to Baseball Prospectus's Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency -- quite simply, a measure of how many batted balls got turned into outs -- the A's were fourth-best in the major leagues this year. And the Tigers? Twenty-seventh.
Which doesn't mean the Tigers can't make great plays. But in this game, the A's have made a couple of fantastic defensive plays. In the bottom of the second, shortstop Stephen Drew made a diving stop to rob Delmon Young of a leadoff single. And in the bottom of third, second baseman Cliff Pennington ranged well into center field to make this rally-killing play ...
In a semi-related note, it's still 2-1 after four innings, thanks to an inning-ending, strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out double play. Jarrod Parker's losing, but he's thrown only 60 pitches. Justin Verlander's winning, but he's thrown 78 pitches. Soon we'll know if any of that matters.
It's not much. With two outs and a runner on second, Quintin Berry chopped a ball down the first-base line. Jarrod Parker pounced off the mound, and he ran to swipe the ball and run to the bag, and he ... juuuust missed.
Even worse, he kind of shoveled the ball down the line, which allowed the runner from second to score, putting the Tigers up 2-1. The A's would have been better off if Parker had whiffed entirely.
That's the difference between getting out of the inning with the tie, and putting a runner on for Miguel Cabrera after giving up the lead. Cabrera would walk, putting runners on first and second for Prince Fielder
Fielder popped a ball up into no-A's land, but Cliff Pennington ranged deep out into shallow left-center to come away with the catch. Parker came out of the inning a run down and eight pitches heavier than if he had just caught the ball.
Mind you, this was a moment after Cabrera grounded into a double play.
Anyway, Boone's evidence was
1. Fielder batted after Ryan Braun last year, and Braun won the MVP Award; and
2. Fielder batted after Miguel Cabrera this year, and Cabrera captured the Triple Crown.
Compelling evidence, to be sure. Of course, there are a couple of things missing from the equation:
1. Braun's been almost exactly as good this year as last year, and
2. Cabrera was just as good in 2010, when Brennan Boesch batted after him for most of the season.
The idea that who's batting behind makes a big difference in anything but your intentional walks is one of our great enduring baseball myths. The next time you see it, grab a sharp stick and poke its eyes out.
Oh, the game. Justin Verlander worked around a Seth Smith walk in, and so the score's still 1-1. Verlander's thrown 43 pitches already, which seems like somewhat more than optimal.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Justin Verlander allowed the most leadoff home runs in baseball this season, with four. Here they are:
This is all apropos of nothing, especially because the Tigers tied the score at 1-1 with the kind of run-scoring double play that only an MVP can muster, but it seemed interesting. If you were asked the question before reading this, you probably wouldn't have guessed Verlander if you had a 150-pitcher head start.
I don't remember the last pitcher I've enjoyed watching pitch more than Verlander. It was probably Pedro in his prime. But Verlander is the Platonic ideal of a power pitcher -- the golden 80 in the imaginations of every scout.
And when he threw his first pitch of Game 1 of the ALDS, a 95-m.p.h. fastball with sweet corner location, I panicked. How can I write "Justin Verlander is good" over and over for three hours, much less for an entire postseason run???"
He's good alright. But he's not good enough to get away with fastballs right down the middle. That's what Coco Crisp got on a 1-2 count leading off the game, and he drilled it to right, just over the fence by the line:
Crisp has actually hit Verlander well in his career, with a .364 regular-season batting average in 22 at-bats. Not that those numbers really mean anything, but if I were 8-for-22 against Verlander -- or 9-for-23 with a homer -- you'd better believe I'd brag about it.
After the homer, Verlander allowed a walk to Yoenis Cespedes, but struck out Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick to end the inning. The A's are up 1-0, and Verlander is mortal. Barely.
For a lot of reasons, the A's might be your sentimental choice in this series, unless of course you're a Tigers fan or you hated Moneyball. And there are reasons to like the A's to win this series; chief among them, the A's won more games and posted a better run differential than the Tigers, in a tougher division.
But as Joe Sheehan wrote in his (subscription required) newsletter today, this match-up doesn't seem to favor the A's:
This is not a good matchup for the A's. You beat the Tigers by putting the ball in play, and the A's do that less than any team in baseball. They struck out 1387 times and batted just .238; they want to play take'n'rake; just one AL team allowed fewer walks and just two allowed fewer homers than did the Tigers. You can hang some of that on a schedule that featured 72 games against the White Sox, Royals, Twins and Indians. The latter three brought up the rear in the AL in homers hit, while the White Sox and Royals were in the bottom four in walks drawn. It adds up. Nevertheless, the fuel the A's need to run their machine will be in short supply.
I don't really have anything to add to that. The A's just aren't the right team to take advantage of the Tigers' porous defense, and we might see a lot of strikeouts in this series. I don't know that the Tigers should be favored, by much if at all. But we can probably go ahead and defenestrate those winning percentages and run differentials.
Here's the crew Tigers manager Jim Leyland will send out against Jarrod Parker in Game 1 of the American League Division Series:
1. Austin Jackson - CF
2. Quentin Berry - LF
3. Miguel Cabrera - 3B
4. Prince Fielder - 1B
5. Delmon Young - DH
6. Andy Dirks - RF
7. Jhonny Peralta - SS
8. Alex Avila - C
9. Omar Infante - 2B
You really don't realize how imbalanced the Tigers' lineup is until you type it out. Seriously, give it a try. You start furrowing your brow at Quentin Berry, and by the time you get to Delmon Young hitting fifth, you start wrinkling your nose in disgust.
But, there are two things to remember:
1. Austin Jackson has been a bad, bad man this year, and that's good. He hit .300/.377/.479 while playing a splendiferous center field. He looked absolutely lost and overmatched as a leadoff hitter last year during the playoffs, but he's made an amazing transformation. His strikeout rate plummeted, and his walk rate shot up. Good signs, both.
2. I guess Andy Dirks is good now? Huh. He's only 26, and while he did have something of an inflated batting average on balls in play (.365), it wasn't that outlandish. He hit .322/.370/.487 this season in 314 at-bats. That's quite good, especially relative to expectations.
So that's two monsters, two guys who had good years, and competent-if-not-more types like Alex Avila and (usually) Omar Infante. Okay, so it's not that bad. You just have to forget what you thought you knew about the Tigers last season.
By way of Oakland Athletics' manager Bob Melvin, here is the starting lineup for Game 1 of the American League Division Series:
1. Coco Crisp - CF
2. Stephen Drew - SS
3. Yoenis Cespedes - LF
4. Brandon Moss - 1B
5. Josh Reddick - RF
6. Josh Donaldson - 3B
7. Seth Smith - DH
8. Derek Norris - C
9. Cliff Pennington - 2B
*. Jarrod Parker, RHP
No surprises. This is all to face Justin Verlander, mind you, so you can picture Leslie Nielsen popping his head in the cockpit every so often with words of encouragement.
Of one particular note is Josh Donaldson hitting sixth. That's not ludicrous -- he had a .289 on-base percentage, but he also had a .398 slugging percentage, with nine homers in 294 plate apperances. But looking at the raw numbers obscures one thing: For the first four-and-a-half months of the season, Donaldson hit .153/.160/.235 over 100 plate appearances. Marvel over those numbers for a second. Those are pitcher numbers. No hyperbole needed.
Since then his recall in August: .290/.356/.489 over 189 plate appearances. You can't just ignore the first stretch -- it happened, so the numbers are a part of the ledger -- but the later set of numbers are closer to the expectations the A's had for him when they acquired him from the Cubs in the Rich Harden trade.
The AL West champion Oakland Athletics face off with the AL Central champion Detroit Tigers in the ALDS.