On Friday evening, after all three of the other Division Series kick off, the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics will play Game 1 of their 2013 series. In a rematch from October 2012, Oakland will attempt to get past the hurdle of last year's American League champions.
Looking back on last October, the Oakland-Detroit tilt was worth the price of admission. In a year that featured all four of the Division Series reaching the five-game distance, Detroit took Game 5 largely due to a masterful performance by Justin Verlander. Yet, it was Don Kelly's walk-off sacrifice fly in Game 2 that set the stage for a commanding Detroit lead early in the series.
With many of the same marquee players (Verlander, Scherzer, Cabrera, Fielder) back for Round 2, are the Athletics better suited to surpass the Tigers in 2013?
If the A's, off a 96-win campaign and second consecutive AL West crown, are poised to win and advance to the Championship Series for the first time since 2006, they'll need to follow a winning formula.
Here's a step-by-step guide for the Oakland A's to win this ALDS:
1. Take a series lead behind Bartolo Colon
Although Bartolo Colon (24 GS, 3.43 ERA) was a part of the 2012 Athletics' success, his 50-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy cost him a spot on the postseason roster. This season, Colon has been even better, posting a 2.65 ERA in 30 starts, including an AL-leading three shutouts.
Despite taking Detroit to five games last October, the A's never held the series lead. As noted above, Detroit gained a 2-0 lead heading back to Oakland. By winning two straight, Oakland merely delayed the inevitable that was a dominant Verlander in Game 5.
This time, Oakland must take the early lead. Outside of Colon, the A's don't have a staff (Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily) that matches up well with the Tigers arms (Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister) after Game 1. If Colon can defeat the potential AL Cy Young winner in the series opener, Oakland will just need to win one of the three middle games to get the ball back to Colon in a deciding game.
There aren't many pitchers in the American League that can stand toe-to-toe with Max Scherzer and defeat him twice in a five-game span, but Colon's late-career renaissance has him profiling as just that.
For a young team needing to find belief in their quest to actually top Detroit, winning Game 1 could change the narrative and direction of the series.
2. Make this series a battle of bullpens
Unless your bullpen features Mariano Rivera, asking to turn the game over to the men in the 'pen isn't usually the best October strategy. Yet it's exactly what Oakland needs to do in order to take down the Detroit Tigers.
As mentioned, the Tigers head into this series with the advantage in starting pitching. The bullpen, however, is clearly in Oakland's favor. To be fair, Detroit has pieced together a much stronger bullpen since turning over the closer job to Joaquin Benoit (2.01 ERA, 24 SV) and setup duty to the nasty Drew Smyly (81 SO, 76 IP), but Oakland has more arms to turn to in close games.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin won't be afraid to turn the game over to his stable of Grant Balfour (10.3 SO/9, 36 SV), Sean Doolittle (.188 BA vs. LH) Ryan Cook (2.54 ERA), Brett Anderson (three saves since converting to relief work in September), Dan Otero (1.38 ERA), Jerry Blevins (52/17 SO/BB) and Jesse Chavez (0.5 HR/9).
Offensively, A's hitters must show patience, drive up pitch counts, and do everything possible to force Tigers manager Jim Leyland into removing his excellent starting pitchers earlier than anticipated. On the other side, Bob Melvin should encourage a battle of bullpens by switching and maneuvering to gain any advantage with platoon or matchup splits.
Detroit's best bullpen arms will need to get through full innings, but Melvin has the depth to mix and match. If games go deep into extra innings, the advantage slowly slips away from Detroit and to Oakland.
3. Fielding a healthy and productive Yoenis Cespedes
Outside of a magical night in New York during the Home Run Derby, A's slugger Yoenis Cespedes did not have a very good season. In fact, when comparing his debut season of 2012 to his second-year numbers, the dropoff from star performer to barely above-average hitter is stark:
Of course, there's a catch. Cespedes seems to be healthier now. The numbers in September back up that claim. During the final month of the season, Oakland's biggest offensive weapon hit .314/.337/.570/.907 with six home runs and 19 RBI.
During the regular season, Oakland went 83-51 with Cespedes in the lineup, and 13-15 without him. That kind of difference can't be ignored. If Oakland hopes to match the offensive firepower of Detroit's lineup, they'll need to be firing and hitting on all cylinders.
Cespedes' home run and extra-base hit power is the key to that in this five-game series. If the red-hot September from the 27-year-old outfielder was a sign of things to come, perhaps the captivating display put on during the Home Run Derby was a precursor to how he'll perform on this even bigger stage.
4. Carry over the second-half power
Since the All-Star break, Oakland cranked 88 home runs, 74 of which came in the team's final 49 contests.
In order to score enough to back their rotation and give leads to an excellent bullpen, power will be key. Detroit's starters all posted K/BB ratios of at least 2.89-to-1. The Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister trio all struck out 3.61 hitters for every walk allowed.
Or, to put it bluntly, the Tigers won't allow Oakland to manufacture runs with free passes.
In order for the A's to post crooked numbers on the scoreboard, power will be imperative. Although none of Detroit's starters gave up as many as 20 home runs for the season, both Verlander (19) and Scherzer (18) came close.
As noted above, Yoenis Cespedes finding health and his power stroke is key, but don't rule out major power contributions from Brandon Moss (30 HR), Josh Donaldson (24 HR) and Coco Crisp (22 HR). The Athletics don't have a hitter that exudes the raw power of Chris Davis or sublime hitting genius of Miguel Cabrera, but they have a lineup filled with hitters that can go deep at any given time.
By the end of the series, if Oakland has hit more home runs than Detroit, we're likely writing and talking about their trip to the ALCS.
5. Embrace the dump
During a recent appearance on John Feinstein's CBS Sports Radio program, MLB commissioner Bud Selig had this to say about Oakland Coliseum:
“It's a pit. It reminds me of old County Stadium and Shea Stadium. We need to deal with that. I've had a committee working on it for two or three years, and there's no question we're going to have to solve that problem.”
But hasn't the committee been working on it for a long time? What's the hold-up?
“We have, John, but I'll tell you it's far more complex,” Selig said. “Look, you have one team that wants to move and the other team doesn't want them to move, and it's a very complicated situation. Before I leave, I'm satisfied we'll work out something.”
While Oakland's stadium issues are real and, recently, disgusting, the team needs to embrace any home-field advantage they have in a postseason battle. Dating back to the original Moneyball A's and back-to-back runs at AL West crowns over the last two seasons, Oakland's crowd is raucous and loud when meaningful September and October baseball arrives.
Detroit isn't a young team likely to be rattled, but the idea of this group of Athletics embracing their decrepit building and looking forward to a potential Game 5 in Oakland should be an advantage, not a disadvantage, for a team looking to shock most experts.