By Sam McPherson
The Oakland Athletics hitters set an American League record this year by striking out 1387 times this season, and their reward for winning the AL West is a date with Justin Verlander — the pitcher who led the league in strikeouts in 2012.
But if anyone wants to doubt the A’s at this point, they can do so at their own risk: Oakland is just fine with everyone underestimating them.
That’s the stage for Game One of this AL Division Series: the Swingin’ A’s taking on the best pitcher in the league, with a trip to the AL Championship Series and the right to play for the World Series on the line.
Oakland won the AL West on the final day of the season, with a 94-68 record — including an incredible 51-25 record since the All-Star break as they made up a huge deficit in the division standings to overtake the Texas Rangers at the end.
Meanwhile, the Tigers clinched the AL Central by winning eight of their last ten games to overtake the Chicago White Sox for the division crown.
So momentum may mean very little tonight when the first pitch is thrown at 6:07 p.m. ET at Comerica Park in Detroit.
The Tigers won 50 home games this year — the same as the A’s and the Rangers, and one less than the New York Yankees — so for the lower seed here to get two home games to start the series is a big advantage for Detroit. Throw in Verlander — the reigning AL Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award winner — and the Tigers seemingly have a lock on this first game of the ALDS.
Verlander was 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA against the A’s this year, striking out 13 batters in 13 innings — giving up only seven hits and four walks in two starts. For his career, Detroit’s veteran righty is 7-5 against Oakland over 13 starts, with a 2.38 ERA in the regular season.
The A’s did rough Verlander up in the 2006 ALCS, though he got the win in Game Two in that series. And no one on this Oakland roster was on that team six years ago. But therein lies the silver lining of hope for the A’s: Verlander’s career postseason ERA is a poor 5.57 over eight starts and 42 innings, compiled in 2006 and 2011. In those 42 innings, he’s given up 45 hits and 20 walks — while striking out 48 batters.
So expect Verlander to get his whiffs, but this A’s team can hit even though the team batting average (.238) won’t scare anyone. Oakland hit 112 home runs after the All-Star break this year, tops in the American League, and their 394 runs scored in the second half also led the AL.
The true hope for Oakland may come down to the late innings: while the A’s counter with rookie Jarrod Parker — making his first postseason start, after pitching 1/3 of an inning in last year’s National League playoffs for the Arizona Diamondbacks — their bullpen superiority may help turn the tide late in the game if Verlander is no longer on the mound for the Tigers.
Oakland’s bullpen ERA this year — 2.94, second-best in the AL — is almost a full run better than the Detroit figure (3.79), and the trio of Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle is quite reminiscent of dominant bullpens in the past. Think Cincinnati’s Nasty Boys from 1990. Balfour alone had a historic week: he became the first pitcher in major-league history to finish his team’s last five games of the regular season, and he didn’t allow a single base runner in any of those appearances.
The A’s won all five of those games, of course, to put themselves right where they want to be: underdogs, again. The Texas Rangers learned that lesson, the hard way.
Detroit would be wise to be wary themselves, as Oakland is for real, and they’re ready for any challenge.
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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.