For the Oakland A's, it will be another long winter of ‘what-ifs.' For a second straight season – and for the sixth time since 2000 – the A's had an opportunity to win a Game Five and move onto the ALCS. Instead, they lost another win-or-go-home game and will have to watch the rest of the post-season from the sidelines.
In Game Two of the series, Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray matched-up for a dazzling pitcher's duel that was won by the A's, 1-0, on a walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth inning. Early on, it looked like Game Five would have a similar feel. There were no hits in the game on either side until Torii Hunter grounded a single up the middle with one-out in the fourth inning. That brought slugger Miguel Cabrera to the plate against Gray. Quiet for most of the series, Cabrera put a dagger in the A's hopes, launching a long homerun to the stairs in left, giving the Tigers an insurmountable 2-0 lead.
Cabrera has been battling lower body injuries for the past seven weeks and he hadn't been much of a homerun hitter during that time. He was able to turn on a Gray fastball in the fourth inning. Cabrera said he just reacted to the pitch.
"I don't know where the pitch was," said A's manager A's manager Bob Melvin, "but he has the ability to hit the ball on the outer third and still pull it when he's looking to pull a ball."
The Tigers would single twice and Alex Avila walked to load the bases with two-outs against Gray in the fourth. He would fall behind Omar Infante in the count 2-0 before he was able to fight back to a 2-2 count and get Infante to ground-out to end the inning.
Gray would come back out for the fifth, and he began the inning in shaky fashion, walking the lead-off batter Don Kelly. Melvin stuck with Gray, however, and Gray responded by striking out Austin Jackson and getting Hunter to ground-out softly to short. That brought up Cabrera again, this time with a runner on second. Gray fell behind Cabrera, 2-0, and the A's put him on intentionally. Prince Fielder followed with two-on and two-out. He hit the ball hard, but right back to Gray, who knocked it down and threw Fielder out at first to end the threat.
In the sixth, Gray started off the inning behind in the count to Martinez, who got him for a single. Jhonny Peralta followed with another single and the A's finally made a move, bringing in Dan Otero. Avila grounded out to Brandon Moss, who had to dive to stop the grounder and only had a play on Peralta at second. That left runners on the corners and one-out for Infante, who hit a sharp grounder to Josh Donaldson at third. Donaldson one-hopped the throw to second baseman Alberto Callaspo, who had the ball in his glove but couldn't make the transfer to his throwing hand, allowing a third run to score.
Gray would finish the game with a line of five-plus innings pitched, six hits allowed, three runs (all earned), four walks and three strike-outs. He threw 98 pitches, only 53 for strikes. It was announced after the game that he broke his left thumb [non-throwing hand] on a comebacker to end the fifth inning. An MRI is scheduled for Gray for Friday.
"[Gray] pitched fine tonight. His ball/strike ratio was a little off for him. Therefore, he couldn't get deeper in the game," Melvin said. "At the end of the day, he basically just gives up a home run to Miguel Cabrera. When you don't score a run and get only a couple of hits or whatever it was, you have to be perfect."
Otero would go two innings in relief of Gray. He allowed two hits and a walk, but no runs, keeping the game close. Sean Doolittle came on in the eighth and he set down the Tigers in order quickly, recording two flyouts and a swinging strike-out. Grant Balfour, an impending free agent, pitched the ninth. If it is final appearance with the A's, Balfour made it a memorable one, retiring the side in order and striking out two.
Verlander was the story of the game, as he retired the A's in order through 5.1 innings. That was when he issued a walk on a full-count to Josh Reddick, who had started the at-bat down 0-2. Stephen Vogt took Verlander to the warning track in the next at-bat and Reddick advanced to second on the play. He would be left stranded there, as Coco Crisp flied out to left to end the inning.
For the rest of the game, it came down to a matter of whether the A's would be able to scratch a hit across against Verlander, let alone score a run. In the seventh, Verlander struck-out Donaldson swinging on a pitch above the shoulders, then retired Jed Lowrie on a medium-deep flyball to left before Yoenis Cespedes knocked a hard groundball up the middle for the A's first hit. Verlander quickly quieted that ‘threat,' however, as he struck-out Seth Smith to end the inning. Reddick also singled with two-outs in the eighth, but Vogt followed with a strike-out.
The eight-inning start extended Verlander's post-season dominance over the A's. In his last 31 innings in the post-season versus Oakland, Verlander has allowed one earned run (a Crisp homerun) and he has struck-out 43.
"He was on early. We weren't getting good swings on him," Melvin said. "I thought maybe when it started to get darker, we would get better swings, but he kept throwing fastballs. Surprising how many fastballs he threw that we swung through, because we're a very good fastball-hitting team."
Tigers' manager Jim Leyland knew Verlander was on his game even before the first pitch was thrown.
"I can usually tell by the look on [Verlander's] face and his demeanor prior to a game when he's zeroed in and locked in and he was locked in tonight," Leyland said.
Detroit closer Joaquin Benoit came on in the ninth in place of Verlander, who had thrown 111 pitches. Benoit struggled in a non-save situation in Game Four, but he recorded the first two outs with ease, retiring Crisp on a grounder to second and Donaldson on a strike-out swinging. Things got interesting at that point, when Lowrie doubled to left-center and Cespedes was hit by the pitch. Smith became the tying run at the plate, but he popped out to right to end the game.
Many were surprised that Verlander was lifted after the eighth, but Leyland said that his right-hander admitted to being fatigued after throwing 111 pitches.
"To be honest with you, we checked with him, and he was really tired after the eighth," Leyland said. "He felt like he could go back out, but I said, 'no, you're not going back out.' He felt like he could probably go out but couldn't get out of the jam, and I said, 'I'm not going to do that to my closer, you're done.'"
It was an outstanding season for the A's, who took home an AL West division crown for a second straight year. Oakland posted winning months in every regular season month and won 96 games for the first time since 2003. They finished third in the American League in runs scored and second in team ERA, fielding a team that gave their opponents fits on both sides of the ball.
But, once again, the Tigers proved to be the A's Achilles heel in the post-season. The combination of the power arms of Verlander and Game One starter (and Game Four winner in relief) Max Scherzer and missed opportunities in a winnable Game Four did the A's in once again.
"We expected to go a little further than this this year, but at the end of the day, we did have a great season," Melvin said. "A little more disappointing this year certainly than it was last year."