5 questions: A's-Tigers
The major issues that will dictate the Oakland-Detroit ALDS
Of the four division series, this one is the most interesting. The Detroit Tigers have the best hitter in the game, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, and the best pitcher in the game, Justin Verlander, and half the people in America can't name the best hitter or the best pitcher on the Oakland Athletics. But the A's, the amazing A's, enter this series as the higher seed thanks to their remarkable last two weeks, a stretch that had you wondering at one point if they would even make the playoffs, then they wound up winning the loaded AL West.
Here are five key questions:
What kind of magic do the A's have working?
It is indescribable. They were 13 games out at the end of June, and wound up in first place. The only teams in history to overcome a larger deficit and finish first are the 1914 Miracle Braves and the 1978 Yankees.
The A's came all the way back after changing their entire infield in July; they won the division without a .300 hitter or a 90-RBI man; their .238 team batting average is the lowest by a postseason team since the 1968 Tigers (.235) and their hitters set a major league record for strikeouts in a season. They won the division with 14 walk-off victories, most in the majors.
"Late in games," manager Bob Melvin said, "I look down the bench and say, 'This is our time, boys.' "
They won with 101 games started by rookie pitchers. No team had ever been to the postseason with as many as 70 starts by rookie pitchers, and the A's went 31 past that. During the brutal 10-game road trip in late September, the A's lost two games in the worst possible manner, but instead of sulking, they impressively came flying back the next day. Sometimes, magic exceeds all, and the A's have had serious magic working for most of the second half.
How healthy is Max Scherzer?
Until his shoulder issue arose Sept. 18, Scherzer was as dominant as any pitcher in the game: He struck out eight or more batters in 10 consecutive starts, the only Tiger ever to do that, the only American League pitchers to have a longer such streak since 1920 were Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan (twice) and Pedro Martinez.
But shoulder weakness slowed Scherzer, and then he turned his ankle during the celebration after the Tigers clinched the AL Central. However, he pitched four shutout innings in the season finale on Oct. 3, and finished with the second-most strikeouts in the league (231).With a healthy Scherzer to go with Justin Verlander and Doug Fister, the Tigers' rotation is as good as there is in the playoffs. But that is assuming Verlander is at his best, which he hasn't been in the postseason: 3-3 with a 5.57 ERA.
What team has the edge at the end of the game?
Tigers closer Jose Valverde isn't the same pitcher he was last year when he went 49-for-49 in save opportunities. He essentially throws one pitch (fastball) and dares hitters -- which is admirable -- but the league is starting to catch on: his batting average-against went from .198 in 2011 to .229 in 2012, and his ERA jumped from 2.24 to 3.78.
The A's Grant Balfour, who became the closer during the second half of the season, dominated down the stretch. He ended the season by joining Eric Gagne in 2003 as the only pitchers in history to pitch at least one inning, and not allow a baserunner, in five straight team games. And he became the only pitcher ever to finish his team's last five games of the season. The A's also have the eighth inning covered with Ryan Cook, and the seventh with Sean Doolittle, who was a minor league first baseman last year. You'd better get to the A's in the first six innings.
How about Detroit's defense?
It is undependable and unathletic. Even their best defender, center fielder Austin Jackson, has misplayed some balls this year that he didn't last year. It is the rare team that advances deep into the playoffs with a subpar defense; usually, poor defense is a killer in the postseason, and it was the Tigers' undoing in the 2006 World Series.
What the Tigers have going for them is a strikeout starting staff: Verlander and Scherzer are the first teammates to finish 1-2 in the major leagues in strikeouts since Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in 2003. And Fister recently set the AL record by striking out nine consecutive hitters. Fewer balls put in play means fewer plays to make. And, to repeat, Oakland hitters struck out more times this year than any team in AL history, so Detroit's D might not be that big of an issue in this series.
How good are those A's rookie pitchers?
Very, very good. Tommy Milone won the most games (13) by an A's rookie since Harry Byrd in 1952. His control and command are so good, "he only throws a ball when he wants to," Melvin said. And Milone has tremendous poise for one so young.
So does Jarrod Parker, and he also has a changeup that no one can hit; in fact, he has not allowed a home run on a changeup this season, and he's thrown around 600 of them. The A's depth of pitching is even more impressive when you consider that if it weren't for injuries and suspensions, Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy would be starting in this series.
Brett Anderson, who's missed a lot of time this year with a variety of injuries appears to be good to go for Game 3. He's all that stands between the A's and the first ever rookie-only rotation in postseason history.
The pick: Tigers in 5