By Jason Wojciechowski on October 6, 2012 at 6:10 PM
I haven't written a game story in goodness-knows how long. I've forgotten how to do this.
The A's, a team with contact issues, were facing the Tigers on a cold night in Detroit with Justin Verlander on the mound. This was, then, a game the A's could not be favored in, no matter Verlander's playoff history (5.57 ERA in 42 innings, with seven homers being a particular problem), no matter that in a normal year, Jarrod Parker would be talked about as a Cy Young candidate, no matter than the A's were third in baseball in scoring after the All-Star break.
And yet, when the final score is 3-1, and when Coco Crisp leads the game off with a homer just over the fence in the right field corner, and when the Tigers runs score the way they did, I think we're entirely justified in being frustrated over the outcome.
So how did the Tigers score their runs? Glad you asked!
First inning, Tigers down 1-0
Austin Jackson hits a hard grounder to Stephen Drew's right. Drew dives for it, but it nicks off his glove and dribbles into left field. An inch or two closer to Drew and he fields it. He may or may not throw out the speedy Jackson, but it's a single at best. An inch or two farther from Drew and it goes cleanly into left for a single. Instead, the ball is slowed down so much that nobody can get it in time to keep Jackson from reaching second.
Quintin Berry gets two strikes while trying to bunt. Hits a hard grounder to Josh Donaldson's right. He dives, but it tips off his glove and dribbles into foul territory behind him. Berry only gets a single and Jackson only reaches third, but still, we're again inches from an out on which Jackson cannot advance.
The one question I have about this play is why Josh Donaldson was playing so far in. With two strikes and the game in the top of the first, the chances of the sacrifice bunt still being on were slim, and the odds that Berry tries to bunt for a hit were even slimmer. Yet there was Donaldson, on the edge of the grass, or maybe even with the bag, rather than in a deeper position.
Miguel Cabrera then grounded to Stephen Drew and the A's conceded the run in return for two outs.1
Third inning, 1-1 score
Omar Infante lines a double down the line into left field on a hanging curve. Legitimate hit on a legitimate mistake.
With two outs and Infante on second, Quintin Berry hits a dribbler between first base and the mound. Jarrod Parker races over and appears to attempt a glove-flip play to Brandon Moss at first. Except Moss is not at first, he's a few feet off the bag, in position to field the ground ball, which would no way ever make it to him in time to get an out on the fleet-footed Berry. The ball rolls past first and Infante motors around to give Detroit the lead.
Most of the blame on Twitter went to Parker for attempting that play rather than picking the ball up and tagging either the base or Berry, but to my eye in real time, I thought it was a reasonable move given Berry's speed. The flip wasn't great, either, but it would have been catchable had Moss been on the bag.
I think there's something to be said about Moss's inexperience at first, in particular his reads on what balls he should go for and what balls he needs to let other fielders have, staying at home for a throw (or flip). We've seen him range much too far to his right to take balls away from Jemile Weeks. Here, I think he should have read that Parker was going to get to the ball best and first.
Fifth inning, 2-1 Tigers
- Alex Avila homer on the proverbial "hanging fastball."
To sum up: the Tigers BABIP'd the A's to death in the first; got one legit hit and one error on a weak squibby squubber in the third; and hit a legit (opposite-field) homer in the fifth.
Parker was not as sharp as we've seen him, but he was plenty sharp enough, tossing a few filthy changes that made Tiger hitters look silly along with his usual fastball. It was enough to get him into the seventh with a runs-allowed number that was good enough to win.
The offense, on the other hand, just looked terrible. Stephen Drew had a nice double. Seth Smith worked a pretty at-bat for a walk. Cliff Pennington hit a sharp grounder on a hanging curve for a single. That was about it outside of Crisp's homer. There were lots of whiffs. Lots of whiffs. ESPN counted 21 for Verlander, three for Joaquin Benoit, and five more for Jose Valverde. That's 29 in total out of 146 pitches, a rate close to 20 percent. The league rate, per FanGraphs, was 9.1 percent. Verlander notched an 11.7 percent rate.
The A's, of course, do whiff a lot. Brandon Moss trades off whiffs for power. So does Yoenis Cespedes. Josh Donaldson trades off whiffs for me getting really mad at him. It's been working for them, and the people shouting about how the team has to make contact are, I suspect, mainly the people wedded to the idea that a strikeout is a bad bad bad thing.
The thing is, how close did it come to working out? Brandon Moss, with a runner on and the A's down by two, hit a high fly to right field in the eighth that was caught on the warning track. But not just on the warning track. At the back of the warning track. Like, with the right fielder backed up against the wall. (Here's the MLB.com video.) If it was two feet (or, as I joked on Twitter, 0.32 Altuves) from being a homer, how many millimeters was it on the bat?
And if that ball does go out and the A's manage to win the game, do we care in the least about a 20 percent whiff rate? Of course not. Sometimes things are just that close, and as much as we've been used to these things going the A's way all year, baseball has a way of biting you like that. It happens.
One quick note on the 2-3 format, which was forced into action this year by the fact that MLB implemented the two–wild card system so late that they couldn't set up the entire schedule to fit it. I hate you, baseball, for putting the A's in a position tomorrow where they have to win against an inferior team in that inferior team's home park in order to avoid facing three straight elimination games. Because what? Because you were too goddamned impatient to put off implementing the second wild card until 2013. I hate you.
But let's end on a positive note, or as positive a note as we can given the context of what I'm about to say. Pat Neshek, who, as you know, recently lost his 23-hour-old son for no apparent reason, pitched in the seventh inning with two runners on and one man out. It's the kind of situation Neshek was put on this earth to face, but it's still mind-boggling that he was out there throwing. Even more mind-boggling: He got a ground ball that very nearly turned into a double play, but resulted instead in a fielder's choice, then whiffed the next hitter easily. The jam was over, as it has been so many times before, but of course this wasn't like any of those times. He patted his "GJN" patch (Gehrig John Neshek) that the A's are wearing in his honor/memory on his way off the field and seemed to be fighting back tears. The fans at home, if Twitter is any indication, were not nearly so successful at keeping it in. Frankly, I'm not doing so hot myself as I write this. I'm happy for Neshek that he was able to experience some professional success in the midst of dealing with his grief, and hope that it helps him in some small way.
The league-leading 28 double plays are, to my eye, the most-ignored factor by the "Cabrera for MVP" folks, so of course he'd hit into one that knocks in a run in his first playoff at-bat of 2012. It could go no other way. ↩