OAKLAND, Calif. – Lacking a budget to acquire that big bopper or elite offensive player, the A’s have notched victories this season with timely hitting. They got another Saturday night as Stephen Vogt’s bases-loaded single with no outs in the ninth delivered Yoenis Cespedes to give Oakland a 1-0 victory over Detroit and even this American League Division Series, 1-1.
Game 3 is scheduled for Monday at Comerica Park in Detroit.
The game featured spectacular pitching performances from Detroit’s Justin Verlander (7 innings, 4 hits, 11 strikeouts) and Oakland rookie Sonny Gray (8 innings, 4 hits, 9 strikeouts).
Cespedes led off the ninth with a single off Al Albuquerque and motored to third after Seth Smith laced a single to right. After Josh Reddick was intentionally walked, Vogt signed off Rick Porcello over a drawn-in infield for the winner.
The A’s mobbed each other in the infield, realizing how close they were to potential playoff extinction.
Gray, making his postseason debut, was brilliant. The Tigers scored three runs in the first inning of Game 1 and haven’t scored since.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of adrenaline and however I was able to harness that was going to be a big factor in the game,’’ said Gray. “Really I wasn’t even watching [Verlander] pitch, I was sitting in the dugout getting myself ready for the next inning.”
Verlander was watching.
“Sonny did one heck of a job. He handled himself like a veteran and it was very impressive,’’ said Verlander. “I’ve been working really hard [recently] to find my stuff and find my location and coming into tonight, especially after the first couple of innings, I kind of realized it’s probably going to be a low-scoring game and one [run] might even do it.”
Verlander capped his stellar outing by striking out Vogt on a 98-mile-per-hour fastball after the A’s catcher recovered from an 0-and-2 hole to extend the at-bat with seven foul balls. Vogt left two runners stranded after Brandon Moss walked to begin the seventh and reached third on a single by Reddick, who took second on the throw.
Verlander struck out 11 — as did Game 1 starter Max Scherzer — and allowed four hits in seven innings with one walk.
Both teams wasted scoring chances in the middle innings. Cespedes and Smith started the fifth with singles to right, giving the crowd their first real thrill.
Reddick attempted a sacrifice bunt that third baseman Miguel Cabrera caught on the fly. Verlander then ramped up his arsenal, striking out Vogt on a wicked curveball and Eric Sogard on a fastball clocked at 97.
The Tigers blew their chance in the top of the inning when Gray struck out Austin Jackson and Vogt pegged Jose Iglesias trying to steal second, stranding Omar Infante at third. Infante was the lone runner to reach third through six innings.
Verlander is one of the more celebrated postseason pitchers in Tigers history, yet he was starting Game 2 because he wasn’t the best pitcher on his team this season. That honor belonged to Scherzer.
Verlander, one of the most dominant pitchers in the game over the last few seasons, struggled at times in 2013, compiling a 6.41 ERA and .287 opposing average in five May starts and 4.11 ERA in August. But in five September starts, Verlander’s velocity and location improved and he struck out 48 batters and allowed just two homers in 39⅔ innings.
So he entered Game 2 with momentum and was flawless through four innings. He struck out three of the first six hitters faced, including Moss on a mighty swing to begin the second and then Smith on an unpopular called strike three by home plate umpire CB Bucknor.
The righthander retired the first 11 batters faced until Josh Donaldson invigorated the impatient crowd with a single up the middle with two out in the fourth. Verlander then went right back to work, striking out Moss on a knee-rattling changeup for his seventh strikeout and sixth looking.
Gray was making his first postseason start after making his major league debut July 10 in relief. He made two relief appearance before being recalled and making 10 starts. He won his final three decisions of the season. He finished 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA and a .214 opposing batting average.
It was a calculated risk to start Gray in such a important game, especially considering Oakland was facing the prospect of heading to Comerica Park trailing, 2-0. At 23 years and 332 days, Gray is the seventh youngest Athletic to start a postseason game, but he showed no signs of jitters in the early going.
Jackson began the game by whiffing on a 83-.m.p.h slider. Torii Hunter followed with a routine grounder to shortstop before Cabrera laced a single to left-center. Gray responded by inducing a grounder to first from Prince Fielder, drawing a raucous ovation.
Gray walked Alex Avila with one out in the second and he moved to second on a Don Kelly single off the glove of first baseman Moss. Gray didn’t flinch, however, getting No. 9 hitter Iglesias to bounce into a force play at third base.
He reached full comfort zone in the third when he struck out the top of the order, including Cabrera on a 96-m.p.h. heater.