The Oakland A's were quite good in the second half of the 2012 season. So good, in fact, that they had us all asking the same question every time they actually lost a game:
"Wait a second, how the heck did that just happen?"
Here we are on this Saturday night asking this question after Oakland's 3-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. What the heck kind of person/thing/ominous force sucked the life out of this A's team?
It was mostly Justin Verlander's doing, of course. He was better than we've ever seen him in the postseason, as he pitched seven innings and struck out 11 while allowing only three hits. He was virtually untouchable after he gave up a leadoff homer in the first inning to get things started.
There's no shame in losing to Verlander, so I'm not about to sit here and scold the A's for falling flat in embarrassing fashion on the grandest of stages. They lost, but they still have their dignity.
The only complaint I'm prepared to make is that the A's we saw on Saturday night in Detroit didn't look anything like the A's team that won the AL West on the strength of the 51-25 showing in the second half. Those A's were a live wire. The A's we saw on Saturday night looked more like mummies doing battle with, well, actual tigers.
Their dignity may be intact, but the question now is where the A's youthful energy has run off to. It was clearly missing on Saturday.
Perhaps Oakland's youthful energy wasn't there because the club's youthful players failed to show up.
Cleanup hitter Brandon Moss, a player with no previous postseason experience, went 0-for-4 with three punchouts. Josh Reddick, another player with no prior postseason experience, also went 0-fer with three punchouts. Josh Donaldson went 0-fer with three punchouts.
Star rookie Yoenis Cespedes managed to get a hit, but it was a mere single that probably should have been caught by Tigers left fielder Quintin Berry.
The only player who did any real damage at all was elder statesman Coco Crisp, who gave the A's their only run. He looked like a guy who wasn't experiencing his first rodeo, which make sense seeing as how he won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2007.
Another player who showed well was Stephen Drew, who collected one of Oakland's four hits and made some nice plays in the field. He, too, has been there and done that in the postseason before, as he was a star in the 2007 playoffs with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Beyond the two of them, the rest of Oakland's lineup was largely helpless against Verlander and the two relievers Jim Leyland conjured up to finish things off. The A's looked a lot like they did early in the season, when they were just another young team trying not to embarrass themselves too badly.
Granted, the one youngster who was quite good on Saturday night was rookie righty Jarrod Parker. He scattered seven hits over six and one-third inning, striking out five and walking only one. He gave up only two earned runs.
But even Parker looked a little rattled by nerves at one point. He put an unearned run on his pitching line in the third inning when he shoveled a weak ground ball off the bat of Berry up the first-base line into foul territory, allowing a run to score.
Parker could have easily just tagged Berry or ran the ball to first base from where he was. He can't be blamed too much, however, as his decision to flip the ball to first base with his glove would have worked out just fine had there actually been someone on first base to receive it.
There wasn't anybody there because Brandon Moss found himself in no man's land on the play, frozen somewhere between "I got it" and "I don't got it."
That play was a microcosm of Oakland's collective performance in Game 1. They may have entered the playoffs looking like a fiery underdog, but they have certainly begun the playoffs looking like an underdog out of their league.
It was a strange sight to behold given how well the A's played down the stretch. But at the same time, it was not an entirely unprecedented sight. The A's looked out of their league the last time they visited Detroit in mid-September too, when they lost two out of three to the Tigers. They were the victims of an offensive onslaught in one of the losses, and a victim of Verlander's right arm in the other.
And therein lies the rub. The A's got a reality check the last time they visited Detroit, as it was clear that they weren't the better team on the field. It was a reality check that took a while to wear off too, as the A's weren't the better team on the field when they went on to do battle with the Yankees in New York and the Rangers in Texas.
It was a crucial 10-game road trip that saw the A's compile a 4-6 record. They didn't look like themselves again until they returned home and proceeded to rip off six straight wins to finish off the regular season.
The A's could look like themselves again when they return home to Oakland for Game 3 on Tuesday. But before they can worry about that, they need to worry about being the better team on the field in Game 2 on Sunday afternoon.
And good luck with that. The Tigers made good on their home-field advantage in Game 1, and the A's are looking at a pitching matchup for Game 2 that favors them even less than the pitching matchup in Game 1.
Parker was a fine argument for Verlander, but Tommy Milone and his 4.83 road ERA don't look like such a fine argument for Doug Fister, who went 8-4 with a 2.67 ERA in the second half of the season.
We know that the A's are a better team than they showed in Game 1, but whether or not this better team is going to come out and play in Game 2 is going to be a matter of the A's rediscovering their power source.
It abandoned them on Saturday, and they were left looking like deers in headlights as a result. All Verlander had to do was run them down.
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