After jumping out to a quick lead, the Detroit Tigers held on to defeat the Athletics on Friday night in Oakland by a count of 3-2. Highlighted by a dominant performance from starting pitcher Max Scherzer, the Tigers are now in the driver's seat heading into Game 2 Saturday night at O.co Coliseum.
In anticipation of the matchup, we'll be taking a look at a few core players from each team who will be key players in the game and will attempt to lead their respective teams to victory.
No list of core performers would be complete without Justin Verlander. Although the 30-year-old had a subpar 2013 season compared to the insane bar he's set in years past, Verlander quietly racked up a 5.2 WAR, according to FanGraphs, good for seventh among pitchers in MLB.
As an eight-year veteran with a bevy of hardware to back up his reputation, he'll surely be looked upon to set the tone for Detroit's Game 2 performance. With a lifetime postseason record of 6-4, it'll be interesting to see if Verlander reverts to his playoff dominance from the 2012 postseason, or picks up where he left off from the recently concluded 2013 season.
In 2012, Justin torched his way through the AL playoff bracket (3-0, 0.75 ERA, .622 WHIP and 5-1 K/BB) before ultimately struggling in his one outing against the eventual world champion San Francisco Giants. Although Verlander has been the Game 1 starter in four of the Tigers' five postseason series over the last two seasons, you have to believe the six-time All-Star is seasoned enough to take over any game he's starting.
After claiming the hot corner last year in his first true season at the big league level (he played in 14 games in 2010), Donaldson has taken his game to a new level in 2013. Easily Oakland's most consistent hitter, the third baseman finds himself in the top three of nearly every A's batting statistics category you can find: first in batting average, RBI and walks; second in on-base percentage, at bats, runs, hits, doubles and OPS; third in home runs and slugging percentage.
He can flash the leather a bit as well.
At only 27, the kid is having a top-five season of any player in the American League, and has a (albeit outside) shot at taking home the AL MVP Award. That alone is sure to make him a tone-setter within the clubhouse. With Yoenis Cespedes still at less than 100 percent, look for Josh Donaldson to provide a much-needed spark at the plate for the A's.
A new addition to the Tigers' already-strong lineup, Hunter picked up right where he left off with Anaheim last year. While not quite the defensive dynamo he was in his younger years, Hunter can still bang with the best of them at the plate. Hitting .304 on the year with 17 home runs and 84 RBI, Hunter adds yet another veteran offensive bat to a stable of dominant hitters in the Detroit lineup.
Where the 38-year-old really distinguishes himself is in his postseason awareness. He's tallied nearly 150 ABs in postseason play on his way to a .305 average and .370 OBP. Long story short, he's been there before, and playing in front of a raucous road crowd isn't going to rattle him like it would, say, Johnny Cueto.
Along the same lines of Torii Hunter, Crisp is the veteran presence among the A's outfielders on the roster. Not only is his recent power surge a driving force atop the Oakland lineup, he also holds the second-best walk rate on the team at 10.4 percent, behind Donaldson's 11.4 percent. This plays a huge role in driving up opposing pitcher's pitch counts and getting into the bullpen as quickly as possible.
While they've cleaned things up a bit in the second half, Detroit's bullpen ERA in 2013 sits 24th in the league at 4.01. Comparing this straight up to their starters' ranking of fourth in the league, it's obvious the sooner Oakland can get the Detroit starters out of the game the better off they'll be.
There is no doubt the Tigers' big first baseman can mash, but it's time for him to step up in the playoffs. His career postseason line of a .183 batting average with 25 K's in 104 ABs isn't going to strike fear into the hearts of anyone, particularly when you are thinking about intentionally walking Miguel Cabrera four times a game.
In order to establish his legacy as a big-time player, or at least catch up to his father Cecil's career .286 postseason batting average, young Prince is going to have to provide some pop at the plate. Fortunately for Fielder, he'll have strong hitters behind him in Victor Martinez (.301 BA in 2013), Jhonny Peralta (.304 BA) and Omar Infante (.318 BA) to ensure he gets a lot of strikes thrown his way.
Let's just say, if the A's get to Balfour, Oakland fans will have a lot to cheer about. The 35-year-old Aussie has once again turned in a great year for the Athletics, registering 38 saves in 41 opportunities. The right-hander, who holds a club-record 44 consecutive saves for the A's, was selected to his first All-Star Game in 2013 as a replacement for Bartolo Colon.
Not many closers in baseball are better at battening down the hatches than Balfour, so if he gets an opportunity to close out this game, chances are good that Oakland will be heading into Detroit with a series split.