Gray, Verlander evoke memories of past playoff duels
Making postseason debut, A's poised rookie goes toe to toe with Tigers ace
OAKLAND -- October duels are not for the faint of heart. Nor are they for fans who dig the long ball and those who can't appreciate the precise and cerebral art of pitching.
What Sonny Gray of the A's and Justin Verlander of the Tigers delivered on Saturday night in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at the O.co Coliseum was vintage October hardball, more than a century old. This is what Cy Young and Christy Mathewson were doing in 1903 and 1905, when the World Series was an infant.
Somewhere, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, October masters, had to be thoroughly enjoying the show.
Gray and Verlander were gone when it ended, the A's sending the series to Detroit even with a 1-0 victory in the bottom of the ninth on Stephen Vogt's bases-loaded single against Rick Porcello, a starter working out of the bullpen.
"A dream come true -- fun, excited, happy, emotional," Vogt, the 28-year-old journeyman catcher, said. "Awesome."
There was no visible awe in Gray, who understood the nature of the challenge presented by the 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player and clearly welcomed it.
"I wasn't watching him pitch," Gray said. "I was just sitting in the dugout, just getting myself ready for the next inning. I knew he was obviously throwing the ball well, but I wasn't really looking into it as facing Justin Verlander ... If I do that, one of their hitters is going to get you. They've got one of the best lineups in all of baseball."
While neither Verlander nor Gray figured in the decision -- the win going to Grant Balfour, the loss to Al Alburquerque -- this was a night ruled by brilliant starters: one fully credentialed, the other just getting started.
"Sonny went toe to toe with one of the best, and I give him the upper hand," Balfour said of Gray, who went eight innings to Verlander's seven. "I might be a tough judge."
A gem by Verlander is nothing new. He can make the best hitters alive look overmatched with his searing heat and unhittable hooks.
Before Josh Donaldson lined a two-out single to center in the fourth on a 98-mph heater, a no-hitter -- even a perfect game, something achieved only by Don Larsen in the history of postseason play -- didn't seem out of the question for Verlander.
By that time, Gray, who two years ago was cracking the books at Vanderbilt, was casting a spell on the Tigers.
"Great move by [A's manager Bob] Melvin over there," the Tigers' Torii Hunter said. "That's why he's starting against Verlander. Sonny was awesome."
Gray, dealing 93-95-mph heat with a bender on Verlander's level, worked out of a second-inning jam and then showed all the right stuff in the third. In succession, Gray reached back and struck out Austin Jackson, Hunter and Miguel Cabrera with pure, unadulterated heat.
Gray drew the ire of Hunter, who was drilled in the arm by Bartolo Colon in Game 1, with a fastball near his head. Hunter pointed toward Gray, whose response was to retire the .304 hitter with a fastball away.
"I don't mind being pitched inside," Hunter said, "but don't throw at somebody's head. Why would you do that? You go hit and let me throw at your face."
Hunter looked past one dangerous delivery to capture the game's essence.
"We've never seen him before," Hunter said. "We didn't know what was going on, what his fastball looked like. He has great stuff, and that's one of the best curveballs I've seen in a long time.
"That's baseball -- October baseball. Awesome."
Gray, at 5-foot-11 calling to mind a young Roy Oswalt, responded to a crisis in the fifth with poise and skill.
A leadoff walk and infield single had runners at the corners with one away, Jackson at the plate. Coming back from a 3-0 count, Gray struck out Jackson with a fastball and Vogt nailed Jose Iglesias trying to steal second with a strike of his own.
"It's huge," Gray said. "You kind of forget about that with Vogty coming through with the game-winning hit. It was a huge turning point in the game."
The A's threatened in the fifth with back-to-back singles by Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith, but Verlander struck out Vogt and Eric Sogard after Josh Reddick popped up a bunt.
In the bottom of the seventh, a leadoff walk by Brandon Moss and two-out single by Reddick had runners at the corners. In what would be the final pitch of his night, and 10th of the at-bat, Verlander pumped a 98-mph fastball by Vogt for his 11th strikeout.
Gray showed his mettle in the eighth following Don Kelly's leadoff single and a sacrifice bunt. Jackson took a third strike, the fourth time he was victimized by Gray, and Hunter popped up the third out.
Alburquerque pitched the Tigers out of trouble in the eighth, striking out Donaldson and Moss. But singles by Cespedes and Smith and an intentional walk to Reddick set the stage for Vogt's game-winning bullet to left center against Porcello, the Tigers' fifth starter.
Gray's postseason debut was about as good as it gets: eight innings, four hits allowed (matching Verlander), two walks, nine strikeouts.
"I told you before the game that I thought it was going to be close and one run might do it," Verlander said. "That's just from watching him."
A star was born in a classic October shootout.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.