After another sluggish start, the Detroit Tigers came to life late against the Oakland Athletics with an 8-6 win to force a Game 5 in the American League Division Series on Thursday night.
Things will be very interesting on the mound for both teams. Tigers manager Jim Leyland used Max Scherzer, who would have started the deciding game, for two innings and 47 pitches in relief during Game 4. That likely limits him to bullpen duty once again on Thursday and gives Justin Verlander the start.
For the A's, the choice came down to Bartolo Colon and Sonny Gray. Colon started opposite Scherzer in Game 1 and allowed three first-inning runs before settling down to go six innings. He did get smacked around a bit, giving up 10 hits.
Gray was fantastic in Game 2, his first career playoff appearance. He went eight shutout innings and scattered four hits with two walks and nine strikeouts, matching Verlander pitch for pitch.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin ultimately decided to go with the Gray for Game 5, choosing raw stuff over experience:
Of course, this may not be the situation that Oakland wants to be in. If you are superstitious and believe trends carry over from year to year in baseball, don't look at what Rany Jazayerli of Grantland posted on Twitter about what this game means for the A's.
Before we offer a final take on the game, let's go over what the potential pitching matchup means for both the Tigers and A's.
Let's start with Verlander, since he is the known commodity and has a far greater track record of success than either of Oakland's options.
Not that Oakland fans need a reminder of this, but Verlander is no stranger to close-out games against the A's. It was 12 months ago, also in Game 5 of the ALDS, when the 2011 AL MVP put the Tigers on his back with a complete-game, 11-strikeout effort in a 6-0 win that sent Detroit to the ALCS.
It's entirely possible he does that again, though what fun is it to say that if we don't talk about the numbers?
Assuming Melvin uses the same lineup he had in Game 2 against Verlander, here is how the starting nine have stacked up against Detroit's big right-hander in their careers.
As you would expect for a lineup that is prone to striking out and one of the best power pitchers of this generation starting this matchup, the numbers don't look good for the A's heading into this game.
Verlander has loved pitching against Oakland and at the O.co Coliseum in his career. He has a 2.48 ERA, 76 hits allowed and a 91-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 98 innings (15 starts) against the A's.
In Oakland, Verlander's ERA drops to 2.38 with a 63-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Who would have guessed that putting a pitcher of this caliber in a huge park would make his already-stellar stats look even better?
You can't really put Verlander into a specific category as a ground-ball or fly-ball pitcher because he had roughly the same number of both in 2013 (240 ground balls, 243 fly balls).
Interestingly, the Athletics actually hit better against pitchers who were primarily ground-ball guys this season.
I say it is interesting because most of the time you will see teams hit better against pitchers they can elevate the ball against, but the A's are one of the exceptions to that rule. If Verlander isn't missing bats but hangs around the bottom of the zone, it could play into Oakland's hands.
Shifting over to the Oakland side of things, Colon is the well-traveled veteran who has a long history against the Tigers from his days in Cleveland and Chicago—though his last year in the AL Central was 2009.
But given his age (40) and late-career surge, Colon has had plenty of chances against this current crop of Detroit hitters.
That is about what you would expect from a lineup with Detroit's depth and Colon's pitch-to-contact approach. They have eaten him alive throughout his career.
One thing that Colon does use to his benefit is the spacious O.co Coliseum. He had a 2.58 ERA at home and allowed just five home runs in 101.1 innings this season.
Unfortunately, due to the fact he only made 12 appearances in the regular season, we can't judge how good or bad Gray does against the Tigers in his career because his only start came a few days ago.
We could make the simple conclusion that Gray will do that again, but without any hard evidence to back it up, who is going to believe it?
The good news is there are stats for everything in baseball, so we can try to paint a picture of what to expect from the Oakland rookie.
If the Tigers want to get to Gray, their best bet would be to do it right out of the gate. Here are Gray's numbers when he goes through the order three times:
Those are what you might see from a power pitcher who needs time to settle into a game. Not that Gray doesn't have power stuff—his fastball can touch 96 with a curveball that makes children cry—but his small frame doesn't strike fear into an opposing hitter.
For me, if I am Melvin and know what Verlander is going to give Detroit, I want the player capable of matching him pitch for pitch.
No disrespect to Colon, who has done wonders for his career in Oakland and been a lynchpin in the rotation all year, but Gray was the right choice by Melvin to get the nod in this game. We know he can miss bats, which is what you want in a game like this.
Gray is Oakland's best shot to win this game, though it is hard to find a way where Detroit doesn't go into Thursday with the advantage.
Verlander's regular season wasn't as dominant as it has been, as his 3.46 ERA and 2.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio were the worst since 2008. But just rewind to Game 2 when he made Oakland hitters look silly for seven innings.
Even if the Tigers offense isn't in peak form entering this game, Verlander is going to give his team every opportunity to win. That's why Leyland is putting him on the mound in this spot.
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