Gray unable to recreate Game 2 magic, takes loss
A's rookie allows two-run homer to Cabrera, breaks left thumb on comebacker
OAKLAND -- The reactionary talk should be in full force Friday morning. The second-guessing, the over-analysis -- all aided by the benefit of hindsight.
Should Sonny Gray have started Game 5, as A's manager Bob Melvin opted for in the deciding game of the American League Division Series? Would the end result -- a 3-0 Tigers win at O.co Coliseum -- have been different if Game 1 starter Bartolo Colon had pitched in Gray's place? Would the A's be the ones soaked in champagne, ready to board a flight to Boston for a shot at the AL pennant, instead of the Tigers?
The answer, of course, is unclear. Melvin chose Gray with hopes of his rookie right-hander recreating the magic displayed in Game 2, when he went eight scoreless innings in what at the time appeared to be a must-win game.
Game 5, however, was the only mathematical must-win game of Oakland's season, and neither Gray nor the A's came through when they needed to the most. Gray was not as sharp as Game 2, exiting after five-plus innings with runners on first and second, as all three of Detroit's runs were charged to his name.
The numbers say he's 0-1 after two career postseason starts, but his impact meant so much more.
"You can't just look at numbers," catcher Stephen Vogt said. "When I think about a good outing, I think about a guy who goes out there and executes his plan, and that's what he did tonight."
In the end, Justin Verlander was just that much better, outdueling Gray in a rematch of Game 2. The former AL Cy Young and AL MVP didn't allow a hit in the first 6 2/3 innings and has struck out 43 in 30 consecutive postseason innings versus the A's -- an insurmountable figure no matter who's on the opposing end.
"When you don't score a run and up only get a couple of hits or whatever it was, you know you have to be perfect," Melvin said.
It wasn't a matter of nerves. Vogt said Gray appeared as calm as ever before the game and Gray said his pregame bullpen session went according to plan. He wasn't overcome by the moment, even when he broke his left thumb absorbing a comebacker up the middle by Prince Fielder in the fifth inning. The rookie righty is scheduled for an MRI on the thumb Friday.
Only one mistake truly sticks out for Gray: a two-run home run allowed to reigning AL MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera in the fourth inning of Game 5. The pitch, meant to go inside on the Tigers slugger, instead lingered over the plate, and Cabrera sent it over the fence in left field to give Detroit the deciding lead of the series.
"He made a mistake to the best hitter in baseball," Vogt said, who noted that Detroit's batters were more patient than Gray's previous outing. "They were trying to run his pitch count up early, it seemed to me."
Outside of the home run, Gray acknowledged that he lacked command of his fastball, which in turn resulted in his repeatedly falling behind in counts. Such situations made it difficult for him to throw his curveball and allowed Detroit's hitters to sit on pitches they weren't able to previously in the series.
Opposing Verlander at the peak of his powers doesn't help either, though Gray refused to cite that as a reason for his performance. The national spotlight and implications didn't intimidate him. He just wasn't as sharp as before.
"It was about going out there trying to get a win," Gray said. "We needed it no matter what it took, but we just couldn't do that today."
Gray enters the offseason having attained the trust of his manager after a dozen Major League starts. He'll enter the offseason looking to improve on a successful rookie campaign that displayed arguably the best arsenal of any pitcher on Oakland's staff. He'll no longer be a rookie when Spring Training rolls around. He'll be a guy with experience on baseball's biggest stage against one of the best teams in the game.
"Everybody talks about the difference of experience, and that's the one thing that Sonny just doesn't have," Vogt said. "The experience for him to throw those two games on this stage, that's where I'm most impressed. Because he pitched. He didn't just throw."
Jeff Kirshman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.