Oakland Athletics (94-68; 1st place, AL West) vs Detroit Tigers (88-74, 1st place, AL Central)
The A’s young starters Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Griffin have shown no fear in becoming acclimated to the big leagues and carrying a team that no one expected to be contenders to the playoffs. That said, unless they’re successful in keeping runners off the bases ahead of Fielder and Cabrera and putting themselves in a position to use the multiple lefties in their bullpen late in the game against Fielder, they’re not going to win.
With the veterans Jonny Gomes, Grant Balfour, Coco Crisp, and Seth Smith, it’s not as if this is a purely young club that will be shell-shocked by the post-season. They’ve been freewheeling and feisty all season long in direct contrast to the outwardly calm and patient manager Bob Melvin.
They hit a lot of home runs and they pitch. If they fail to do one or the other against the Tigers, they’re going to lose.
Keys for the Tigers: Win Justin Verlander’s starts; receive contributions from hitters other than Fielder and Cabrera; get runners on base in front of Fielder and Cabrera; hope that Jose Valverde is able to close without incident or Jim Leyland smoking seven cigarettes at once in the runway while Valverde is on the mound.
A team with a pure ace such as Verlander holds a distinct advantage in a short series, but Verlander hasn’t pitched well in past post-seasons. For him to truly validate his place in history, he needs to go further than being a regular season horse and Cy Young Award/MVP winner, he has to come through in October. If Verlander is able to give the A’s pause early in the first game and make them think that the have to win the three games he’s not going to pitch, it could be a blow to the solar plexus for a young team that, for the most part, has not been in this situation before.
Contrary to perception, the Tigers offense is not limited to Fielder and Cabrera. Austin Jackson had a breakout season; Quintin Berry provided a spark and speed; and Delmon Young has a penchant for hitting homers in the playoffs.
Valverde is shaky and gets himself into trouble seemingly for the sake of getting himself out of it. It’s devastating to any team when they get a lead to their closer and their closer blows the game, and it happens remarkably often in the playoffs and World Series.
What will happen:
2012 was meant to be a rebuilding year for the A’s, but this season has been about inexplicable (statistically and otherwise) leaps for both the A’s and the Orioles. The A’s rode youngsters Parker, Milone, Ryan Cook, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, and Griffin, along with veteran journeymen Balfour, Crisp, Brandon Moss, and Gomes to a shocking AL West title.
Can the young pitchers who reveled in the pressure during the regular season continue that trend in the playoffs? Parker is starting the opener against Verlander. Because of the new playoff rules, the team with the inferior record is beginning the playoff series at home. It’s a bizarre set-up but home field is generally overrated in baseball.
The A’s need their young pitchers to maintain their fearlessness against a Tigers’ lineup that houses Fielder and Triple Crown winner Cabrera. But that won’t help them if they don’t account for Jackson, Berry, and Young.
The A’s don’t have a long history against Verlander. Crisp is the only player on their roster with more than 20 plate appearances against him (8 for 22). They have a lineup of bats who like swinging at fastballs, but Verlander is more than just a near-100 mph fastball. He has a feel for pitching and gets better as the game wears on; if the A’s are going to get to him, it has to be early. If it gets to the fifth or sixth inning and Verlander gets his groove, the A’s are in trouble.
Max Scherzer isn’t scheduled to start for the Tigers until a possible game 4 after a shoulder injury put him on the sideline and an ankle injury set him back. I’d be concerned if the Tigers enter game 4 down 2-1 in the series and are relying on a rusty Scherzer.
The bullpens are similar with somewhat shaky closers who’ve lost their jobs at various times in their careers. It wasn’t long ago that Balfour wanted out of Oakland for having the job taken away from him in favor of rookie Cook. Valverde is unreliable at best.
The Tigers can hit for power with the Athletics and have the starting pitching to shut down the A’s offense. The bullpens are even; the starting pitching is an edge for the Tigers with Verlander looming for two games in the series.
The A’s magic ride was contingent on production that couldn’t have been crafted into believable fiction. The experience of the Tigers will show and they have star power that the A’s currently don’t.
PREDICTION: TIGERS IN FOUR