The Athletics did it.
Somehow, some way, they clawed their way to a division title over two-time American League Champion incumbents. And they did so with a fascinating story line around every corner, a contributor from every angle and a battle against every expectation.
Now, the fight continues against another presumed AL powerhouse in the Detroit Tigers, who boast some of the best players in the game at their respective positions, including the first Triple-Crown winner in 45 seasons.
The two teams are a near antithesis of one another, as the A’s enter the series as anonymous as any playoff team in recent memory, while the Tigers’ star power made them a very popular pick to win the whole thing in the offseason. If there’s an advantage to be had, it’s that Oakland is used to this.
The Athletics spent the season beating teams they had no business beating on paper. They won season series against Texas, Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Boston and Baltimore, while splitting with the Yankees. Facing a team as presumably daunting as the Tigers – although the A’s lost the season series, 3-4 – is nothing the team doesn’t think it can handle.
A cliché that sprouts every October is, ‘the best team doesn’t win, the hottest does.’ In the American League, that case can be made about either the Yankees or Tigers, who finished the season winners of 7-of-10 and 8-of-10 respectively. But going back to June, no team in the league has been better than Oakland, and it’s not close.
Since the start of June, the A’s 72-39 record is the best in AL, eight games better than the Tigers, who went 64-47. And they did so in record fashion. No team in baseball history had ever made the postseason with more than 70 starts from rookie pitchers. Oakland had rookie starters in 114 games this year.
The Athletics appear to be a pretty favorable matchup for Detroit, who showcase two of the AL strikeout leaders in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer atop its rotation while the A’s set a new record for strikeouts in a season.
Former Mariners’ hurler Doug Fister has success against the A’s in the past, by going 5-4 with a 2.45 ERA, allowing 65 hits in 66 innings.
But perhaps the most important matchup of the entire series will be Oakland’s bullpen against the middle of Detroit’s lineup. The advantage Jim Leyland has is the obvious combination of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, who compliment each other awfully well, making them very tough to match up with in late-inning situations.
There were no surprises when the official roster was announced Saturday, especially when it came to the bullpen. A's manager Bob Melvin and his staff elected to keep the core group together that he used throughout the majority of the season. He elected not to peg starter Dan Straily as long-relief, situational option out of the ‘pen.
That means it will be up to the likes of Pat Neshek, Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins and Ryan Cook to handle the high-leverage situations late in games against the two power threats.
Although Neshek – a righty specialist - has solid career numbers against most right-handed hitters, Cabrera has seen him well in his two at-bats, getting two hits, including a homer. Blevins owns a strikeout in his one time facing Fielder while Ryan Cook has yet to allow a hit to a Tiger this year, having faced nine hitters.
The use of Doolittle will be worth keeping an eye on considering all the factors that made him such an interesting story throughout the year. His splits indicate he’s far more effective against right-handed hitters from the left side (lefties hit .286 against him, while righties hit .195). At the same time, Fielder’s numbers see a significant drop against lefties. There’s no sample of Doolittle against the vaunted twosome either, giving Melvin and Curt Young a lot to think about when matching up the hard-throwing southpaw in high-leverage situations.
Although it hasn’t been officially announced, it’s likely that Brett Anderson will return from his oblique injury that sidelined him in September to start game three in Oakland. In the meantime, Melvin will trot out two rookies to start the first two games in Detroit.
Jarrod Parker (13-8, 3.47 ERA in regular season) will become the first rookie to start game 1 of a postseason series in club history and the fifth-youngest pitcher in to start a postseason game for Oakland. He matched Tommy Milone for the team lead in wins and threw 181.1 innings despite not making his debut until April 25.
Parker won’t be making his postseason debut, however. He made an appearance out of Arizona’s bullpen in the 2011 NLDS, allowing a run on a pair of hits and walk in a third of an inning.
By most accounts, Parker projects as the best all-around right-hander the A’s have on the starting staff. He allowed just 11 home runs on the season, none of which came on his changeup, which rates as his most effective weapon. Early in games, Parker usually relies heavily on mixing his two-seam and four-seam fastball while keeping his secondary pitches in his back pocket until the second or third time through the order.
The right-hander’s ability to very speeds and direction on his fastball is what sets him apart from some of the better young arms in the league. Parker made one start against the Tigers this year back in May, getting the loss by allowing two runs in 5.2 innings with four walks. Justin Verlander started that game, throwing seven innings and allowing just two hits.
Saturday’s first game will be a rematch of that game, with Verlander (17-8, 2.64 ERA in regular season) looking to improve upon his surprising postseason numbers. In five postseason series, including eight starts, the flame-throwing righty is 3-3 with a 5.57 ERA in 42 innings thrown.
There could be a multitude of reasons for his drop in production in October – one of which could be the huge amount of regular season innings he’s piled up throughout his career.
Verlander has averaged 228 innings per-season in his eight-year career, and hasn’t thrown less than 200 since 2006. Last season, he allowed five runs in nine innings over two starts in the division series against the Yankees, throwing five walks. In the ALCS against Texas, he yielded seven runs in 11.1 innings, also with five walks.
Those walk numbers bode well for the A’s, who were fifth in baseball in walk-rate as a team at 8.9 percent. But it’s worth repeating: no team struck out more than Oakland this year while no pitcher struck out more hitters than Verlander.
Sunday morning’s game 2 (starting at 9 A.M. pacific time) will have Tommy Milone go against Doug Fister. Milone (13-10, 3.74 ERA in the regular season) is most known for his impeccable control and home and road splits, where he performed considerably better in Oakland than elsewhere.
Although Milone will be pitching on a full week’s rest, it can be considered a curious decision for Melvin to have his talented lefty start in Detroit instead of back at home where’s he’s shown to be more comfortable. In his most recent start against the Tigers on Sept. 20, Milone lasted just 4.2 innings before allowing three runs on nine hits, although the A’s won that game 12-4.
On the other side of the coin, having Anderson throw game three could be a better option should the A’s fall in both games in Detroit and go down 0-2. Melvin perhaps has more confidence in his veteran in that situation rather than Milone. But if Milone struggles Sunday, Melvin will field numerous questions about his line of thinking.
Fister (10-10, 3.45 ERA in the regular season) will get the start for Detroit, coming off a September in which he went 4-2 with a 2.77 ERA in six starts. The 6’8” righty walked just seven in 39 innings, giving him a strikeout to walk ratio of well over four.
In his first start in April, Fister left in the fourth inning with a strain in his left side that forced him to miss a month of action. Initially, he struggled in his return, going 0-4 in four outings while allowing 30 hits in 23.2 innings.
He rebounded in his starts since then, going 12-8 with a 3.53 ERA.
Fister made three appearances in the postseason last year – including two starts – going 2-1 with a 4.76 ERA. He struggled against the Yankees in the ALDS, allowing seven runs in 9.2 frames, before allowing two earned runs in 7.1 innings in the next round against the Rangers.
It’s worth pointing out that Fister has a 3.93 ERA in Comerica Park over 20 starts, while also owning a 2.36 mark in the O.Co Coliseum.