Oakland A's Find Playoff Ace, Momentum in Walk-Off Game 2 Victory over Tigers

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Oakland A's Find Playoff Ace, Momentum in Walk-Off Game 2 Victory over Tigers
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Welcome to October, kid. I know you've only made 10 big league starts, but here, take this ball and go shut down the Detroit Tigers before they put us in a hole deeper than the one we're already in.

Oh, and by the way, you're going to have to outduel Justin Verlander. 

Such words probably weren't actually spoken to him, but that's the situation Oakland A's rookie right-hander Sonny Gray was facing in Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night. If he didn't step up, the A's stood a very good chance of being put in a 2-0 series hole.

Wouldn't you know it, Gray stepped up. And then some.

And in doing so, Gray gave the A's two things they needed: momentum, and a pitcher who looks ready to be an ace for as long as the A's are able to keep kicking in October.

For those who missed it, Gray ended up being more than a match for the Tigers and their former MVP and Cy Young Award-winning veteran. While Verlander turned in a superb effort with seven innings of shutout ball that featured 11 strikeouts, Gray was even better with eight scoreless innings and nine punchouts of his own.

In the end, it was Gray's batterymate who made sure the rookie's effort wasn't in vain.

The game was scoreless heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, but the A's quickly loaded the bases with nobody out and Stephen Vogt, he of the .598 career OPS, punched a single to center field that gave the A's a 1-0 walk-off victory.

And the crowd, as they say, went wild.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

As well it should have, for what the fans saw was an instant classic of a baseball game that accomplished the double-whammy of giving the home team its swagger back after a tough loss in Game 1 while also knotting the series at a game apiece.

And this is now a series, mind you, that possibly hasn't seen the last of the guy who made Oakland's momentum-shifting victory possible.

There were times when Gray was in trouble throughout Game 2, most notably in the fifth inning when the Tigers had runners on first and third with one out. But a strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out double play got Gray out of that jam, and his composure never wavered then or at any point throughout the evening.

This is not to say that Gray was a robot out there, as his manager was quick to note.

"His composure is his excitement," said A's skipper Bob Melvin, adding: "He's not one of those guys that's stone-faced out there and you can't tell his emotions. He's into every pitch, and he really enjoys doing it. That has worked for him over his career and still is at the major league level."

But while Gray's excitable mindset surely had a hand in his domination of the Tigers, so did his stuff.

"We felt good tonight and were sticking to the scouting reports," said Vogt, before cracking a smile and saying, "With the stuff that Sonny had tonight, scouting reports were kind of a moot point."

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Gray's stuff was definitely sizzling on Saturday night. Per Brooks Baseball, Gray's four-seamer averaged 94.6 miles per hour, which is pretty close to what esteemed fireballer Max Scherzer averaged in Game 1. Gray got as high as 96-97, most notably after Torii Hunter indicated that he didn't like a high-and-tight pitch in the third inning. Gray responded by getting him swinging on a 96 mph heater later in the at-bat.

"It got me fired up a little bit," said Gray of Hunter taking exception to the high-and-tight offering. "After that, I had a little extra adrenaline."

But the fastball isn't Gray's best pitch, something that Tigers manager Jim Leyland was quick to note during his pregame press conference on Friday.

"I mean, if you're just looking at the tape, it looks like his best pitch is probably his curveball," said Leyland. "It's really a good one, with tight spin. It's one of the old-fashioned 12-to-6 curveballs."

Leyland is right about Gray's curve being a good one, but calling it an "old-fashioned 12-to-6" doesn't really do it justice. Gray's curve is more dynamic than that.

Gray's curve has more lateral movement than most curveballs. Brooks Baseball has its average horizontal break down at 8.49 inches. Among right-handers in 2013, that amount of movement was good enough to place Gray fifth from the top.

And if we take a look at that top five with velocity factored in...

Right-Handed Curveballs
Player Horizontal Break (IN) Velocity
Clay Buchholz 10.00 78.04
Jose Fernandez 9.11 82.41
Charlie Morton 8.95 78.89
Scott Feldman 8.67 75.72
Sonny Gray 8.49 80.29

Brooks Baseball/Baseball Prospectus

It's good enough that Gray's curveball was one of the biggest breakers horizontally during the regular season, but only he and Jose Fernandez averaged 80 miles per hour or better with their hooks. It's not too soon to say that Gray has one of the best curveballs in the game.

And on Saturday night, Gray's hook was even nastier than usual.

Gray broke out his Uncle Charlie 29 times against the Tigers and picked up whiffs on five of the 13 swings that were taken at it with a couple of called third strikes on the side.

The average velocity: 81.8 miles per hour. The average horizontal break: 9.30 inches. The curveball Gray was throwing on Saturday night was essentially a juiced-up version of the one he was throwing during the regular season.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

"His stuff is really, really good," said Verlander of his rookie opponent. "He was executing and throwing strikes and getting guys to chase his curveball when he wanted. That was a big indicator to me that it was going to be a tough night for our guys."

That's indeed what it ended up being, and it's possible that Gray will get to frustrate Tigers hitters again before this series is over. If the A's or Tigers don't win the two games in Detroit, the series will come back to Oakland for Game 5. Gray will be available to pitch on regular rest.

As for the great beyond, maybe a Game 7 is in Gray's October future. If the A's come across one of those and Gray is one of several options for Melvin to choose from, conventional October wisdom declares that Gray would be the only right choice.

The conventional October wisdom is that it's good to have power pitching in the postseason, and this is a notion that holds water because, shoot, it's good to have power pitching at any time. As Melvin put it in his pregame press conference on Friday, power "plays just about anywhere." If a guy is capable of blowing hitters away, there's not much that can stop him from doing so.

And blowing hitters away is something Gray can do better than any other A's starter. If we were to make it super-duper simple using some data from FanGraphs:

Oakland A's Starters
Starter K% FB Velo
Sonny Gray 25.7 93.1
Bartolo Colon 15.2 89.9
Jarrod Parker 16.4 91.5
A.J. Griffin 20.8 88.9
Dan Straily 19.4 90.3

FanGraphs

Gray throws harder than any of his four comrades by a hefty margin. Consider that along with his outstanding curveball, and it's no wonder he was Oakland's top strikeout artist during the regular season.

There were doubts as to whether Gray would be able to cut it in the postseason, as there always are with young pitchers in October. But Gray proved to be right at home in October on Saturday night, keeping his composure and using the environment to add some extra stopping power to his pitches.

The typically dangerous Tigers had no shot, and now they're left to wrest the momentum back away from the A's back on their home turf.

The Tigers can definitely do that, especially given that they have two tough pitchers of their own lined up in 2013 American League ERA champion Anibal Sanchez and noted strike-throwing machine Doug Fister. A split in Oakland is obviously not the worst the Tigers could have hoped for in the series' first two games.

But the Tigers should want to get things over with in Detroit even more now, because now they know who awaits them if this series goes the distance.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Quotes obtained firsthand.

 

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