By Sam McPherson
For eight-plus innings at the O.co Coliseum tonight, it was all about the pitching.
No runs, only a handful of hits, and another low-scoring game between two of the biggest run-producing teams in the American League this year — pitchers are dominating this AL Division Series, no doubt.
And while the visiting Detroit Tigers pulled out a 3-2 win on Friday night, this time it was the host Oakland Athletics who escaped with a 1-0 victory, scoring the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning for one of those made-for-TV, “walk-off” moments that make all the national highlight reels.
What a duel it was.
All-World Justin Verlander threw 117 pitches in seven shutout innings against the A’s, giving up just four hits and one walk while striking out 11 batters. “All-nothing” rookie Sonny Gray did him one inning better, though, tossing eight scoreless against the Tigers, surrendering four hits and two walks while striking out nine batters with 111 pitches total.
You couldn’t script a better pitcher’s duel, truly: this was the first match-up in MLB postseason history in which both teams’ starters had at least nine strikeouts while not allowing a run.
Now, the four starting pitchers in this series have given up a total of five runs in 28 innings, against offenses that averaged 4.9 (Detroit) and 4.7 (Oakland) runs per games this year, respectively — the second and third-best numbers in the AL.
So that old cliche about the best pitching wins in October may be true once more.
Oh, and timely hitting helps, too.
Friday night, the Tigers got the breaks earlier to score their runs, and Saturday, the A’s got the break they needed late to score their winning run. After going 0-for-10 through the first 17 innings of this series with runners in scoring position, Oakland finally broke through with catcher Stephen Vogt’s bases-loaded, no-out single in the ninth. Yoenis Cespedes, now hitting .500 in the series, led off with a single, and then Seth Smith singled as well. Josh Reddick was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Vogt came through for the much-needed victory.
The A’s rookie catcher may have had the at-bat of the night against Verlander, as well: in the seventh with two runners on and two-out, Vogt battled the Tigers righty through a 10-pitch battle before finally striking out for the third time in the game. But the effort was enough to force Verlander from the game before the next inning began, and Oakland was able to punch the winning run across against the Detroit bullpen — its one “weakness,” as the 4.01 ERA for Tigers relievers was fourth-worst in the AL this season.
And that may have to be Oakland’s strategy going forward: get to the bullpen, as Detroit’s Game Three starter is Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 AL ERA champion.
With all this stellar pitching on both sides of the diamond, it would be unfair to label the lack of offense in this series as a “dud,” however. Yes, both teams have good offenses, and maybe in a hitter-friendly stadium like Comerica Park in Detroit, the bats will come alive. But in the pitcher-friendly Coliseum, the fans sure witnessed some amazing efforts tonight — historically so.
It’s only appropriate this series heads to Detroit for Game Three tied, because these two teams couldn’t be more evenly matched. It took the full five games to decide their ALDS last season, and you’d have few takers to bet on the series not going the distance this fall as well.
Game Three will be on Monday at 10:07 a.m. PT.