For the second consecutive season, the Athletics lost to the Tigers in the ALDS despite having home-field advantage. Detroit limped into the postseason, nursing injuries and trying to get healthy in September. Meanwhile, everything appeared to be coming together for Oakland with a lineup that mixed platoons wonderfully, a young starting rotation and the AL's best bullpen. Yet after taking a 2-1 series lead, the A's were steamrolled by a Tigers rally. Here are five observations we took from Detroit's five-game victory over Oakland.
1. When you have an opponent beaten, you have to finish them off.
The Tigers were dead in this series after losing Game 3. They couldn't score runs, Anibal Sanchez — who led the AL in ERA during the regular season — pitched one of his worst games of the season, and Oakland's Coco Crisp and Seth Smith looked unstoppable. Game 4 seemed almost like a formality. Detroit was done, worn down by the grind of the regular season and nothing left for a younger, hungrier A's team. When Oakland took a 3-0 lead, last rites were about to be performed. The A's were going to the ALCS.
Then a funny thing happened. The Tigers' bats showed some life. Jhonny Peralta — whose presence on the playoff roster wasn't a sure thing following a 50-game PED suspension — hit a game-tying, three-run homer. The A's took the lead again, 4-3, but Victor Martinez hit a solo home run to tie the score. Even Austin Jackson, who was a strikeout machine in this series, got a base hit to drive in the go-ahead run.
Suddenly, Detroit had a heartbeat again. The Tigers tacked on three more runs, giving them eight in a ballgame! That didn't look anywhere near possible earlier in the series.
Of course, the A's still had a chance to win the ALDS in five games. They had the decisive game at home in front of a crowd yearning to see its team advance in the playoffs. But the series never should have come to a decisive game in which Justin Verlander was pitching, and a revived offense was ready to take another crack at rookie Sonny Gray. The A's had their opportunity to finish off a beaten Tigers team and didn't follow through on it.
Verlander in last 31 postseason innings vs. the A's: 1 ER, 43 K's
— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) October 11, 2013
2. Justin Verlander is just fine, folks.
It was easy to pick the Tigers before Game 5 because they had their No. 1 guy — the Cy Young Award winner and MVP — on the mound. As we saw with Adam Wainwright in Game 5 of the NLDS between the Cardinals and Pirates, this is what decides which pitchers can be called aces. They want the ball in the do-or-die game with their team's season on the line.
Verlander showed what a difference an ace can make with his Game 5 performance that adds to his already considerable legend. He allowed only two hits over eight innings, racking up 10 strikeouts. Verlander took a perfect game to one out in the fifth inning. He had a no-hitter going until two outs in the seventh. By the end of the game, the only question was whether manager Jim Leyland would let his ace pitch the ninth inning or turn the game over to closer Joaquin Benoit.
In his two ALDS starts, Verlander didn't give up a run in 15 innings. He allowed six hits and two walks, while striking out 21 batters, averaging out to 12.6 Ks per nine frames. In last year's ALDS versus Oakland, Verlander gave up one run in 16 innings with seven hits and 22 strikeouts. And oh yes, he won the deciding Game 5 in that series, pitching a four-hit shutout. He's good at this stuff.
3. Sonny Gray might be a future ace for the A's.
Oakland might have found its own ace in the ALDS, however. Manager Bob Melvin surely already knew Gray could be that sort of pitcher for his team, tabbing him to start Game 2 and then opting for him over No. 1 starter Bartolo Colon to pitch Game 5.
Gray earned his bona fides in the regular season, compiling a 2.67 ERA in 10 starts with 67 strikeouts in 64 innings. He also had the advantage of never facing the Tigers before. Detroit showed how important that unfamiliarity was, mustering only four hits over eight innings in Game 2. Starting his first playoff game, matching up with Verlander and pitching to one of the best lineups in MLB didn't faze the rookie at all.
In Game 5, however, the Tigers did seem to benefit from seeing him once before. Gray couldn't find his curveball for his first few innings, allowing Detroit batters — especially Miguel Cabrera — to sit on his fastball. By the time Gray was able to locate his off-speed stuff, the damage had already been done.
If there's one knock against Gray at this point, it's that he's essentially a two-pitch pitcher and those guys don't always enjoy long-term success as starters. Gray does feature more than one curveball, however, which should help him until he's able to further develop his slider or the cutter that he occasionally used this year. But during a season in which Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker may not have progressed as the A's would have liked, Gray appears to be a new candidate for the team's No. 1 starter next year.
4. Austin Jackson should move way down and Victor Martinez should move up in the Tigers' batting order.
Here's the sort of thing that would draw the "#analysis" hashtag on Twitter. Jackson had an awful ALDS for the Tigers, and Leyland has to give serious thought to booting him from the leadoff spot to lower in the lineup where he can hurt Detroit's offense less. The Tigers center fielder batted 2-for-20 in five games, striking out an inexplicable 13 times. Jackson just seems absolutely lost at the plate right now. His strike zone is out of whack, his timing — most importantly with planting his front foot — is off and he just doesn't put the ball in play enough.
The problem for the Tigers is that they don't really have a suitable replacement for Jackson at the top of the order, which is why he's batting there in the first place. Jose Iglesias seems like a possibility because of his speed, but he's had a .306 on-base percentage (OBP) since joining the Tigers. In the ALDS, that OBP was .154 to go with an .086 batting average. The best man for the job might be Omar Infante, who compiled a .345 OBP during the regular season, but has a .263 mark thus far through the postseason.
Another lineup change Leyland should consider is moving Martinez from the No. 5 spot into the cleanup hole behind Cabrera. The Tigers' DH was their best hitter in the ALDS, batting 9-for-20 (.450) with two doubles, a home run and two RBI. That continues the torrid pace Martinez was on in the second half, during which he posted a slash average of .361/.413/.500.
Prince Fielder has been Detroit's cleanup hitter throughout the season, but while he's getting on base (.350 OBP in the ALDS), he's not hitting for any power. Fielder has a .278 slugging percentage in five games. managing five singles in 18 at-bats.
With Cabrera also struggling to hit for power because of his abdominal and groin injuries, the Tigers need someone with some thump in the middle of their lineup. Leyland is hesitant to move someone from a spot where he's been successful, but his team's poor run production should prompt him to shuffle that batting order accordingly.
5. Josh Donaldson learned the regular season and postseason are two different beasts.
It's a cliche, if not something of an exaggeration, to say that the playoffs are an entirely different game than the regular season. But the intensity of the game ramps up considerably. Every at-bat, every pitch matters significantly, especially in a shorter five-game series. No one may have learned that lesson more harshly in the ALDS than Donaldson.
The A's third baseman had an excellent season, batting .301 with an .883 OPS, 37 doubles, 24 homers and 93 RBI. FanGraphs ranked his as the third-best player in MLB this year at 7.7 Wins Above Replacement. Only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen had a higher WAR this season. He will likely end up third or fourth on most AL MVP ballots when the final votes are tallied.
But those numbers didn't mean anything in the ALDS. Donaldson was a non-factor during the five games against the Tigers. In 22 plate appearances, he batted 3-for-21 (.143) with a .143 OPS, one walk and eight strikeouts. In Game 5, Donaldson was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. With runners on base, he frequently failed to put the ball in play, often striking out.
Donaldson certainly isn't the first star player that failed to produce in the postseason. At 27 years old, one full major league season on his resume and under club control until 2019, his future with Oakland appears bright and hopeful. But for the A's to advance in the playoffs, rather than run into the ALDS roadblock, their best players have to produce when counted on.