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Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Tigers getting in A's heads with big win?

By David Schoenfield



As my friend Thomas the Tigers fan tweeted after Rajai Davis' dramatic walk-off grand slam off Sean Doolittle gave the Tigers a 5-4 win over the A's: "Best thing about it? No chance for Joe Nathan to blow the save."

So here's a question: Does this game say more about the Tigers or the A's? Yes, it could say nothing other than a gritty win for Detroit in the middle of a long season and a tough loss for Oakland in the middle of a long season, and that's generally how baseball players view results. They put the day's game behind them and come back to the park the next day with a clean slate. You have to do that in baseball since there are 161 next games on the schedule.

Still, these are people and not machines or stat lines, so it's fair to bring up the issue of whether the Tigers have a little whammy over the A's, having defeated them in the postseason the past two Octobers thanks in large part to the singular dominance of Justin Verlander. In some fashion, it's not unlike where the Red Sox and Yankees stood back in 2004. The Red Sox knew that to win it all they would eventually have to beat the Yankees; while the Tigers themselves are trying to win a World Series after winning the past three AL Central division titles, the A's have to know there's a good chance they'll have to go through the Tigers at some point.

Rajai Davis and Miguel Cabrera
Even Miguel Cabrera was impressed by Rajai Davis belting a walk-off grand slam.
That's why Monday's result matters, even if it puts even one-tenth of one percent of doubt in the heads of the A's. It's not simply a matter of wiping it from your brain. Stuff lingers; bad losses linger. You don't think if Doolittle has to face Davis -- or, more problematic, Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez -- in a big moment in October that maybe Monday's grand slam has the potential to create just a little more pressure? Not every reliever has the veins of ice like Mariano Rivera.

Doolittle, of course, entered this outing with some mind-boggling season numbers, namely his totals of 56 strikeouts and one walk. Those are Little League numbers. Doolittle's approach is pretty simple: The lefty pounds the strike zone with fastball after fastball. He throws first-pitch fastballs over the plate -- and then with two strikes goes up in the zone. For some reason, it's taken opponents half a season to figure out that you have to attack Doolittle early in the count.

Doolittle entered with a 4-1 lead. Nick Castellanos led off with an infield single against an 0-1 fastball at the knees. Alex Avila hit a line drive to right -- a first-pitch low fastball. After Eugenio Suarez struck out, Austin Jackson walked on a 3-2 inside fastball, a terrific battle in which Jackson fouled off three 2-2 fastballs (clocked at 97, 96 and 97 mph). All nine pitches to Jackson were fastballs. You'd think Davis would be sitting fastball, but instead Doolittle threw him two sliders, the first for a ball and the second that Davis sent over the fence in left field. Good job, Rajai -- just the fourth Tigers player since 1969 to hit a walk-off grand slam while trailing.

Doolittle has now blown saves in his past two appearances. I'm not too worried about him; this was just one of those games that happens to the best of closers. I don't think we're entering Jim Johnson territory here. Doolittle does, after all, still own a 57-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39⅓ innings -- and that's going to work over the long haul.

That doesn't mean there aren't minor concerns about the Oakland bullpen. One thing that worked so well over the previous two years was the A's had Grant Balfour closing with Doolittle and Ryan Cook primarily working the seventh and eighth, with manager Bob Melvin using those two to match up as needed (not that Doolittle is a situational lefty or anything; he's just as good against righties). With Johnson struggling early on, the primary setup guys have been Luke Gregerson and Dan Otero, two right-handers, although lefty Fernando Abad has started pitching his way into more high-stress situations.

Overall, that's still a strong group and the A's are fifth in the majors in bullpen ERA. They are, however, seventh in bullpen innings pitched, and none of the six teams that have used their bullpens more are currently in a playoff position. That's why the one area the A's are most likely to address is the starting rotation. Check out the month-by-month ERA and OPS for the Oakland rotation:

April: 2.85/.622
May: 3.12/.676
June: 4.00/.707

That's a trend in the wrong direction. While GM Billy Beane doesn't need to overreact, he also knows Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez have never had a 30-start season in the majors and Scott Kazmir hasn't had one since 2007. As valuable as Chavez has been as a surprise starter, is he really a No. 3 guy for a playoff series? That's why Oakland will likely be in on the non-David Price, non-Jeff Samardzija starters who may be available -- guys like Jason Hammel, Ian Kennedy, Brandon McCarthy and so on.

OK, Tigers fans are waiting for something about the Tigers since they won the game. The Tigers have their own bullpen issues, as our pal Thomas hinted at in his tweet. Certainly, Huston Street ($7 million team option for next year) and/or Joaquin Benoit ($8 million next year with 2016 option) of the Padres would be of interest. Detroit is now 9-2 since temporarily falling behind the Royals for three days. Verlander has been a little better his past two starts and you can see the offense starting to come together a little better with the additions of J.D. Martinez and Suarez.

Another key has been Castellanos, the rookie third baseman who hit .337/.365/.520 in June. With Avila getting on base at a .348 clip, the Detroit offense suddenly has some depth in the order behind Ian Kinsler, Cabrera and Victor Martinez. The two weak spots have been Jackson and veteran Torii Hunter, who hit just .194 in June. Considering Hunter's poor defensive metrics, age may finally have caught up to the 38-year-old. That's why J.D. Martinez's outburst has been vital.

That all makes the Tigers the heavy favorite in the AL Central -- as everyone said back in March. They should get back to October. Maybe they'll face the A's. And then we can remember this game on the final day of June.