It took a "perfect" effort for the Oakland A's to take home their first post-season victory in six years. Powered by a standout performance from starter Brett Anderson and the return of their reliable defense and bullpen, the A's earned a 2-0 win over the Detroit Tigers, extending their season for at least one more night.
Anderson, who hadn't pitched since September 19 in Detroit when he exited the game with a strained oblique, wasn't always sharp, but he used his defense and some timely strike-outs to toss six shut-out innings in his first post-season start. He struck-out six, walked two and allowed only two hits. Despite fighting his command at times (out of 80 total pitches, Anderson threw only 45 strikes), Anderson was in control of the game throughout his start. He allowed Detroit just two runners past first base and only one flyball out, inducing 10 groundouts.
The single flyout was a memorable one, however. Anderson fired up the raucous sell-out crowd at the Coliseum with an eight-pitch, two strike-out performance in the top of the first inning. The A's offense continued that momentum in the bottom of the inning when the first three batters reached against Tigers' starter Anibal Sanchez, with Yoenis Cespedes singling home Coco Crisp for the game's first run.
Sanchez would settle down after those first three batters and escaped the first down only 1-0. Prince Fielder led-off the top of the second and it appeared briefly that he had evened up the game with a homerun to center. But Crisp, whose two-out, two-run error in the seventh inning of Game Two of the series was a big factor in the A's loss, had other ideas. The A's centerfielder made a running, leaping catch over the wall in right-center, robbing Fielder of a homerun.
The catch kept the momentum firmly in the A's corner and although Oakland would never run away with the game, it set the tone for the A's victory.
''You see him hit it and you just kind of put your head down a little bit because you think you just gave up a homer,'' Anderson said of Crisp's catch.
''Then you see him fly through there and catch the ball. It kind of kick starts you to go out there and make pitches.''
The A's allowed three crucial unearned runs in the first two games of the series, but Oakland defenders made several outstanding plays in the game to back the A's pitching staff. In the top of the third, Anderson faced Omar Infante with a runner on first and one-out and Miguel Cabrera looming on deck. Anderson fell behind in the count and Infante hit a hard groundball to third that Josh Donaldson corralled and turned into an around-the-horn double-play. Then in the top of the fourth, shortstop Stephen Drew robbed Fielder of yet another hit when he ranged up the middle on a groundball, throwing out Fielder at first.
Anderson said that the A's defense gave him the confidence to try to pitch to contact, which helped him get through the middle innings of the game when his command wasn't as sharp as it was in his first and final innings. Four of Anderson's six strike-outs came in his first and final innings of work.
Anderson wasn't the only beneficiary of the A's great defense. In the seventh, Ryan Cook took over for Anderson and Fielder was again the victim of the A's outstanding glove-work. The Tigers' first-baseman hit a sinking line-drive to left that looked destined to be a lead-off single. Yoenis Cespedes had other ideas and he made a diving, tumbling catch to keep Fielder off the bases. That proved to be an important play, as the Tigers would add a single off Cook with two-outs in the inning.
"They played a perfect game," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "You have to tip your hat."
Sanchez and the Tigers were also close to perfect. The Tigers' right-hander settled into a groove after his rocky first inning, retiring nine in a row from the second inning until the fifth, when he allowed a deep homerun to straight-away centerfield to A's designated hitter Seth Smith. Smith struggled in September and during the first two games of the series. However, he had good career numbers against Sanchez coming into the game and, as he has all season, A's manager Bob Melvin pulled the right strings in leaving Smith in the line-up. The homerun was Smith's third in 15 career at-bats against Sanchez.
Smith isn't sure why he has swung the bat so well against Sanchez in his career.
"He's right-handed, so I guess that's good," Smith joked after the game. "There's no secret against him. Some guys in the major leagues you see [the ball] better than others."
Smith also cracked that his homerun wasn't that important because the A's would shutout the Tigers, but Anderson said that the extra run allowed him to be even more aggressive about pitching to contact because a solo homerun wouldn't tie the game.
The A's bullpen, which blew two leads late in Game Two, also rebounded in front of the home crowd. Cook worked around a two-out single for a scoreless seventh. Sean Doolittle came out in the eighth and was over-powering, striking out Avisail Garcia, Gerald Laird and Austin Jackson all swinging. Then Grant Balfour would earn the save, striking out Infante and getting Fielder to hit into a game-ending double-play after Cabrera singled to right.
Anderson was the biggest question-mark on the A's roster coming into the series because of the time that he missed at the end of September with the oblique injury. He tested the injury with a bullpen session on Friday and Melvin was confident that Anderson would be ready for this start based on that session, which Melvin term as "aggressive."
Leyland, who was impressed with Anderson's curveball, also wasn't surprised that Anderson was able to pitch so effectively despite the long layoff.
"Melvin is very smart," Leyland said. "He wouldn't go with [Anderson] if he didn't have confidence that he was ready."
Despite retiring his final six batters – three via the strike-out – Anderson was pulled after six innings and only 80 pitches. Unbeknownst to Anderson, the A's had planned for him to throw only 80 pitches. Melvin said there was a long conversation between him and his starting pitcher at the end of the sixth when Melvin made the call to the bullpen.
The crowd, a better-than-capacity 37,090 fans, also played a big role in the A's win. The fans were on their feet for much of the game, often waving the yellow rally towels that were given out before the game. Tigers' Game Four starting pitcher Max Scherzer praised the atmosphere, calling the crowd the "rowdiest" he had seen at any park all season. The A's are expecting another sellout crowd on Wednesday for Game Four and, if the A's win, for Game Five.
Melvin, as he has all season, is keeping the A's focused solely on their next game and isn't looking at any potential match-ups beyond Game 4's scheduled starters of A.J. Griffin and Scherzer.
"[The win] gets us to tomorrow," Melvin said. "We have to go at it in the same fashion as we did tonight."
NOTES: The A's got some bad news down-on-the-farm earlier in the day. Infielder Miles Head left the Phoenix Desert Dogs' Opening Day Arizona Fall League game early with a shoulder injury that he sustained trying to check his swing. He is expected to have an MRI this week to determine the extent of the injury…Other A's prospects had more positive AFL Opening Days. Second baseman Grant Green reached three times with two hits and a walk and he drove-in two. Starter Shawn Haviland tossed three scoreless innings and he struck-out four. Catcher Max Stassi went 1-2 with a double…Before the game, Leyland said that he believed Melvin and Orioles' manager Buck Showlater should be the co-Managers of the Year for the American League…The A's win broke a six-game post-season losing streak for the franchise and a five-game losing streak in playoff elimination games…The A's crowd was the largest since the team installed tarps on the third deck at the start of the 2006 season…Oakland pitchers allowed only two flyball outs (both were off the bat of Fielder) and struck-out 11 batters…Josh Donaldson was the only A's player with two hits…Jhonny Peralta had two hits and a walk in three plate appearances…Game time was a relatively brisk (for the post-season) two hours and 33 minutes.