Much like the regular season, there was no shortage of drama when the American League West champion Oakland A's took on the American League Central Division Detroit Tigers in the Division Series. The A's couldn’t overcome losing the first two games of the five-game set, but did show the same resilience that paved the way for the first playoff appearance in six years.
The story lines coming into the series were simple. It was the star-studded Tigers outfitted with plenty of postseason experience against the up-and-coming A’s that took baseball by storm by way of outstanding pitching and a knack for the long ball.
Oakland’s young arms held up, but Detroit’s talented starting pitchers were able to limit the A’s to just three home runs on the series while also setting a new major league record with 50 strikeouts in a five-game series.
Ace and overall once-in-a-generation talent Justin Verlander made two starts in the series and stifled the A's lineup by allowing just seven hits in 16 innings, including 20 strikeouts. He allowed just one earned run that came on the first hitter of the series when Coco Crisp led off game 1 with a home run down the right field line.
Verlander and Crisp were perhaps the most important players for their teams in the series, as each starred – or stumbled - in three of the series most important moments.
MOMENT ONE: Game 2, bottom of the seventh inning, Miguel Cabrera at the plate with runners on first and second. Score was 2-1, A’s.
The A’s losing game 1 against Verlander meant that game 2 was that much more important. They did not want to return to Oakland down two games to none and have to face Verlander again in a potential game five. They had to win game 2 to head back to Oakland with a much more comfortable home field advantage.
Cabrera had doubled twice and flown out to deep center in his first three at-bats. With the go-ahead run at first base, it’s easy to understand why Crisp would be playing very deep in center field. But the rangy outfielder had struggled with reads in the early afternoon sky all day and even the night before.
The triple-crown winner took a big swing at an 0-1 offering from reliever Sean Doolittle, causing Crisp to pause initially before sprinting in to field the shallow fly. The panic of his initial miss-read caused him to over-run the ball slightly, and he awkwardly tried to make a basket catch instead of a conventional one. The ball popped out of his glove and he made a last-ditch effort to snag it on the rebound, but couldn’t.
Two unearned runs ended up scoring and the Tigers took the lead. The A’s would take the lead back in the eighth, but Detroit would rally to win, 5-4, with a walk-off sacrifice fly in the ninth.
Had Crisp made that play, there’s a very good chance the A’s would have won the game and returned home with the series tied. They ended up winning games 3 and 4, which would have advanced them to the ALCS.
MOMENT TWO: Game 4, bottom of the ninth, Crisp at the plate with the winning run on second base, game tied at 3.
The resilient A’s came into the inning down 3-1 and were on the verge of elimination after struggling with the bats all night. They were facing closer Jose Valverde, who had only blown five regular season saves in 40 chances.
Josh Reddick – who had struggled mightily all series – started the inning with a lead-off single to right and advanced to third on a ringing double from Josh Donaldson to left field. They would both score on Seth Smith’s double. Smith became an offensive hero for the second night in a row after homering in game 3.
George Kottaras and Cliff Pennington couldn’t get Smith home, bringing up Crisp to the plate with two outs.
Crisp ripped the first pitch he saw from Valverde past second baseman Omar Infante into right field and Smith lumbered around third and scored when right fielder Avisail Garcia couldn’t field the ball cleanly as he was charging in, hoping to make another great throw to the plate – similar to when he nailed Crisp at home in game 2.
The A’s had their 15th walk-off win of the season, good for the most in baseball. The series was suddenly tied at two, forcing a game 5 in their own backyard in front of a raucous crowd that became one of baseball’s loudest over the last couple weeks of the season.
MOMENT THREE: Justin Verlander taking the ball to start game 5.
It’s doubtful that there’s a pitcher in baseball more equipped to handle a crucial game 5 start than Verlander. He did his best to prove it.
The A’s losing both games in Detroit meant they had to take the series to five games, which meant another start for the most talented thrower on Earth.
Had they pulled out a win on Sunday, it’s unlikely they would have faced Verlander on three days’ rest given the availability of Max Scherzer. And after Verlander threw 200-plus innings for the sixth-straight season, it’s unlikely Detroit would have risked their investment after inking him to a five-year, $80 million extension just two seasons ago.
It also meant Verlander would go on normal rest. He ended up throwing a complete-game, four-hit shutout. He struck out 11 and threw 122 pitches, both normal figures for him. The A’s didn’t have multiple base runners until the eighth inning, when they were down 6-0.
Overall, it was dominant performance, one that Verlander himself tabbed as the best of his career, sitting on the post-game press conference stage soaked in champagne.