ALCS Preview: Oakland A's vs. Detroit Tigers

Now that the excitement of the Oakland A's sweep of the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS has died down, the A's are focused on the task of trying to handle the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS. As was the case in the A's-Twins ALDS, this year's ALCS figures to be a match-up of good pitching and opportunistic hitting. We have a preview inside.

This was the series that wasn't supposed to happen. Almost every expert had the ALCS match-up this season set with the Twins and the New York Yankees. Instead, the A's and Tigers took all of seven combined games to upset the Twins and Yankees and move on to the American League finals.

On the surface, the A's and Tigers are similar ballclubs. They are two teams which have built their pitching staffs through their system and through trades and have built their offense around a few veteran pick-ups and some homegrown players. They both play defense well. They both have deep pitching staffs and solid bullpens. Neither team runs particularly well or all that often.

However, if you dig a little deeper, you find a lot more differences between the A's and Tigers. The Tigers got the season off to a blistering start and struggled down the stretch, losing the division title on the final day of the year. The A's started off the season slowly, but posted the best record in baseball for the second-half of the season, overtaking the Angels in August and never looking back on their way to the AL West title.

The Tigers are a free-swinging team. On the season, they walked 430 times and shortstop Carlos Guillen was their team leader in walks with 71. The A's, on the other hand, are a very patient club, having walked 650 times. Oakland had three players with more than 80 walks this season, and first baseman/left fielder Nick Swisher led the team with 97 bases on balls.

The Tigers may not walk that much, but they do know how to score runs. They averaged 5.07 runs per game this season, as compared to the A's average of 4.75 runs a game. Detroit may not have a ton of recognizable sluggers in their line-up, but they do hit a lot of homeruns, blasting 203 during the regular season to the A's 175 homers. The Tigers had eight players with double-digit homerun totals. The A's had six.

The Tigers, like the A's, tend to play a station-to-station game. The Tigers stole 60 bases this season and were caught 40 times. Lead-off man Curtis Granderson was the only Tiger with double-digits in stolen bases, having swiped 20. The A's swiped 61 bags in 81 chances, with catcher Jason Kendall and right-fielder Milton Bradley leading the way with 11 and 10 stolen bases, respectively.

Both Oakland and Detroit are good defensive teams, although the A's had the statistical edge this season, committing only 84 errors to the Tigers' 106. The A's infield defense will be hampered during this series, however, as Mark Ellis will be out for the remainder of the playoffs with a broken finger. Ellis set a record for the highest fielding percentage for any second baseman in major league history this season with a .997 mark.

Where Detroit and Oakland really excelled this season, however, is with their pitching staffs. The Tigers out-classed everyone in the American League this season in team pitching, posting an AL-best 3.85 ERA. Their staff was led by rookie Justin Verlander (17 wins), veteran Kenny Rogers (17 wins and 200 innings) and youngster Jeremy Bonderman (200 Ks in 214 innings). Fourth starter Nate Robertson (who is the likely Game 1 starter for Detroit in this series) was one of the toughest starters against left-handed hitters this season. The Detroit bullpen was a strength, led by fireballer Joel Zumaya and veteran closer Todd Jones. Fernando Rodney and Jamie Walker also had very solid seasons for the Tigers out of the bullpen.

The A's are very familiar with Rogers, Bonderman and Robertson, having faced them numerous times over the past few years. Rogers famously "owns" opposing teams when pitching in the Oakland Coliseum. The former A's left-hander was 2-0 at the Coliseum this season, although he did give up seven runs in 13 innings. He is 25-4 in his career at the Coliseum with a 3.46 ERA. Rogers is expected to pitch Game 3 of the series in Comerica Park, but he could be the Game 7 starter for Detroit, a game that would take place in Oakland.

Bonderman is a former A's first round draft choice who was traded to Detroit in 2002 as part of the Ted Lilly deal. A friend and former roommate of the A's Rich Harden, Bonderman has been quoted in the past as saying that he gets particularly pumped up when facing the A's. The A's saw Bonderman only once this season, and he received a no-decision in a game during which he allowed three runs in seven innings. He struck out only one batter in the game. For his career, Bonderman is 3-3 with a 3.77 ERA in seven career starts. He has walked 21 and struck out 19 in 43 innings in those seven starts.

The A's saw Robertson twice this season. He went 1-1, allowing nine runs in 14 innings. For his career, Robertson is 2-2 with a 5.46 ERA in four starts versus Oakland. The A's have seen Verlander only three times. In his two starts versus Oakland this season, Verlander was solid, going 14 innings and allowing only four runs. For his career, he is 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA in three starts versus the A's. Nick Swisher has hit him particularly well, homering twice in six at-bats.

On the flip-side, the A's counter with a similarly deep starting pitching rotation that starts with former Cy Young winner Barry Zito and will follow with Esteban Loaiza, Dan Haren and Rich Harden. The A's finished fourth in the AL in team pitching this season with a 4.22 ERA, despite missing team ace Harden for much of the season and Loaiza for a portion of the first half. The A's bullpen is deep and well-rested, having only worked eight innings during the ALDS. Closer Huston Street has had an up-and-down season, but he saved two games in the ALDS and was on the mound in the third game to seal the A's 8-3 win. Justin Duchscherer was the A's best reliever this season and the set-up man worked four outstanding innings during the ALDS. Oakland will need to get solid performances out of Kiko Calero and Joe Kennedy in this series, as well. If any of the A's starters falter, Joe Blanton and Kirk Saarloos will be available for long relief.

Zito tends to thrive against aggressive ballclubs, so it is no surprise that he has had a lot of success against the Tigers throughout his career. He held Detroit to one run on three hits in seven innings in his only start against them this season and he has a 2.28 ERA lifetime against the Tigers. Zito did walk four in his start against Detroit this year and walks have been a problem for him all season.

Loaiza was awful against the Tigers in his first outing against them this season, allowing eight runs in three innings. He was much better the second time, limiting Detroit to three runs in six innings. During his career, Loaiza has generally pitched well against the Tigers, going 11-5 with a 2.96 ERA. He was also much better at home this season (3.71 ERA) than on the road (6.08 ERA), and his first start should come at the Coliseum on Wednesday.

Haren was also inconsistent against Detroit this season. In his first outing, he allowed seven runs in six innings. In his second start against the Tigers, he was terrific, allowing only one run on four hits and walking none in seven innings. Haren has struggled down the stretch. His September ERA was 5.80 and he has been allowing a lot more hits than usual for him during that stretch. In his ALDS start, Haren was consistently working out of trouble, as he allowed nine hits in six innings, but he was able to keep the damage to just two runs. He could be vulnerable to a Detroit team capable of putting a lot of balls in play.

The A's fourth starter is their biggest question-mark and their most talented hurler. Rich Harden has missed virtually the entire season with injuries. He had two impressive outings after his return from the disabled list in mid-September, but then was very erratic in his last outing on the season's final day. He wasn't needed in the ALDS because the A's swept the series and it is still unclear which Rich Harden will show up in Game 4. He has been working on his mechanics and was scheduled to throw a game at the A's Instructional Leagues today. Harden didn't face Detroit this season, but in his career he is 3-1 with a 3.70 ERA.

Three Keys:

For Detroit:
1) Don't Be Aggressive. The Tigers must fight themselves a little bit and try to work the count against the A's pitchers. Oakland's middle relief could be vulnerable in this series, especially since the A's middle relievers haven't pitched in over a week.

2) Work Overtime. The starters must give Detroit a lot of innings. The Detroit starting staff has been good at working late into games this season, and they'll have to continue to do so. The A's have been good at getting to their opponents' middle relief all season. If Detroit can go right from their starter to Zumaya and Jones, they will be much better off than having to rely on Jason Grilli and company in the middle innings.

3) Get Ahead. Verlander and Bonderman need to stay in the strikezone. Bonderman, in particular, was effective at throwing first strikes against the Yankees in the ALDS. Both pitchers can be vulnerable to occasional wildness and the A's will exploit that if they aren't hitting their spots. If they are, watch out.

For Oakland:
1) Flank Frank. This was a key for the A's in the ALDS, too. Oakland must do a good job of protecting Frank Thomas in the line-up. The A's got production from their third and fifth spots only in Game 3 against the Twins. They won't be able to beat Detroit if that happens again because the Tigers aren't likely to pitch to Thomas if Eric Chavez and Milton Bradley aren't producing.

2) Minimize the Damage. The Tigers tend to collect hits in bunches, especially against the A's. A's starters can't give away any free passes or the base-runners are going to add up in a hurry. Most of the A's starters have been good at working out of trouble this season. They'll need to continue to do that in this series. The A's will also need to figure out how to get out Placido Polanco. He is a sizzling 33-67 lifetime against Oakland.

3) Defend Second. The A's lost arguably their best defensive player when Mark Ellis went down with a broken finger. D'Angelo Jimenez will have big shoes to fill in the field at second. He needs to make the routine plays and be ready to turn the double-play. The A's led the league in double-plays this season, and they'll need to turn their share in this series with Detroit likely collecting a lot of hits.

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