OAKLAND, Calif. -- In two games against the Oakland Athletics this year, Max Scherzer was far from stellar. He did not earn a decision, and sported a 4.91 ERA. On Friday night at a sold-out O.co Coliseum, the 29-year old veteran looked every bit as dominant as Justin Verlander did last season in the American League Division Series opener, striking out 11 over 7.0 innings of work, en route to a 3-2 victory.
“I don’t get caught up in the hoopla, worry about where I’m pitching or if I’m pitching Game 1 or Game 5,” said Scherzer. “When you’re pitching against a postseason team like the A’s, you have to bring your game.”
Scherzer combined with Drew Smyly and closer Joaquin Benoit to strike out a total of 16 Athletics – the most ever in the postseason for the Oakland franchise -- a marked difference from the last time Scherzer squared off with the green and gold on Aug. 29, when he allowed six runs (five earned) in just 5.0 innings of work.
“They did get me, but that’s baseball; sometimes, that’s how it goes, and they can get me, and I can get them,” Scherzer said. “That’s the cat-and-mouse game.”
Scherzer allowed just three hits – a second-inning triple off the bat of Yoenis Cespedes, a seventh-inning single to Brandon Moss and a two-run blast to Cespedes one batter later -- and two walks, needing 118 pitches – 78 of them strikes -- to out-duel Oakland starter Bartolo Colon.
Colon -- an All-Star and an 18-game winner at age 40 – finally showed his age for the first time in 2013, laboring through the first inning, allowing three runs on three hits in the top of the first, and his first hit batsman of 2013, throwing 17 pitches as the Tigers sent seven men to the plate before the seats were even warm.
Colon had allowed three runs or more in a game 10 times in 30 starts – and just once in the final month of the season -- and had not yet hit a batter, but in the top of the first, he looked very uncomfortable, surrendering a leadoff flare double down the right field line to Austin Jackson on just the third pitch of the at-bat, then missing inside to Torii Hunter before pegging the Tigers outfielder in the front elbow to put two men on for Miguel Cabrera.
Cabrera came in hitting .500 (8-for-16) lifetime against Colon, and despite slogging his way through injuries during the second half of the season and all but limping into the playoffs, rocketed the first pitch he saw from Colon off the mound and through Colon’s wickets for an RBI single.
“Well, it looked like balls were up, couple of balls not hit hard, a couple of balls hit hard,” said Oakland manager Bob Melvin.
After a Prince Fielder run-scoring double play, Victor Martinez slowed the quick-working Colon to a crawl, and polished off a five-pitch at-bat by ripping a frozen rope over the head of shortstop Jed Lowrie and into the left field gap. Catcher Alex Avila wasted no time in sending a seeing-eye grounder to the right side, plating Martinez and staking Detroit to a 3-0 lead.
“We said often, too, the starting pitcher is most vulnerable earl in the game, but he settled down and pitched well,” Melvin said. “He got out of sync. You saw balls up in the zone, which you normally don’t see from him. Hits a batter, so it took him an inning to get back into his rhythm.”
Those three runs were more than enough for Scherzer, who is undefeated this season when getting three runs or more of run support.
“That can change in a heartbeat,” Scherzer chuckled. “Teams like the A’s, they can come out and whack you around. But, for me, you know, getting those early runs is always big, especially in the postseason. It allows our hitters to do well. If I can throw up some zero’s, they usually score even more.”
That didn’t happen for Scherzer on Friday, as Colon settled quickly. After throwing mostly fastballs up in the zone in the top of the first, he introduced more off-speed pitches and began to locate his two-seam fastball low in the zone, getting four of the next nine outs via the ground ball, and retiring 11 of 13 hitters.
“You’ve got to credit Colon,” Leyland said. “He really settled in and pitched well. He started using all his pitches a little bit more. He’s a terrific pitcher who’s had a terrific year. Obviously, we feel like we’re going to need to add on some runs. That was the one thing that might have been a little disappointing, after we kind of jumped him real quick and then we just couldn’t get anything else going. We’re going to need to do that a little bit better as the series goes on.”
Hunter stepped to the plate in the top of the fifth, and laid down a rare bunt, trying to get something going against a resurgent Colon.
“That was just Torii, doing that on his own,” Leyland said. “He does that on occasion. It’s a good play, trying to get the big guy up there. Caught ‘em back a little bit, and Jose Iglesias made a good attempt at bunting and Donaldson smelled it and he bunted it too hard, but in Torii’s case, anytime he can get a guy on base, we figure it’s a pretty good play for us, but he did it on his own, to his credit.”
The gamble paid off with a single, but Hunter -- going on first movement -- was picked off on a spin move to second by the big right-hander, with Fielder -- hitting .500 lifetime against Colon -- at the dish, to end the inning.
The Tigers threatened again in the top of the fifth, rattling out three hits, but with not a single run to show for it.
Not to be outdone, the Athletics got men into scoring position in the second and the third, but failed to cash in a screaming one-out triple by Cespedes in the bottom of the second and a two-out walk/stolen base by Coco Crisp an inning later.
Cespedes would get another shot though, and this time, with a man on base. After scorching his first career playoff triple off a Scherzer slider earlier in the game, Cespedes made things interesting in the bottom of the seventh, reaching out and touching Walnut Creek with his first career playoff home run, turning around a 95-mph heater with a monumental two-run blast on a 2-2 count to bring the A’s within a run with no outs.
“In the first at-bat, he put a good swing on a slider that caught too much plate,” Scherzer said. “Then, that third at-bat, he had a good battle with me, and it got to a 2-2 count, and I didn’t quite know what pitch to go with, but I thought I’d go with my best fastball and throw it away. I could at least make him go the other way, but that pitch caught too much plate, and he’s too good of a hitter wit too much pop to leave it over the middle of the plate in that situation. But, that happens. That’s baseball. You just move on.”
With three left-handed batters in a row due up, Leyland came out to talk to Scherzer.
“Usually, he makes a signal if he wants a pitcher pretty early, and I didn’t see him do that, so there’s times where he will come out and ask you how you’re doing,” Scherzer said. “At that point in time, I still felt like I had some bullets left. I still thought I could execute all my pitches at that point in time, even though there were three lefties coming up. I told him I thought I still had something left in the tank, and I wanted it. He said, ‘It’s yours.’”
After Josh Reddick -- who hosed Martinez by more than 10 feet at the dish in the top of the sixth – flied out to left, catcher Stephen Vogt popped out weakly to shallow left, and then Scherzer fanned first baseman Daric Barton for the third time on the evening to cauterize the wound.
“The crowd was roaring, everyone was on their feet, and to get those outs was big, because I was able to pass it on to the rest of the pen,” Scherzer said.
Oakland threatened again in the bottom of the eighth against Smyly, with Crisp working a walk, sandwiched between two strikeouts by Alberto Callaspo and Lowrie. Leyland immediately went to Benoit to face the Athletics’ MVP candidate Donaldson, and Benoit obliged, getting the Oakland third baseman to pop out to Fielder between the mound and home.
“I’ll be honest with you: If there was only one out in the inning, I was going to go with [Al] Albuquerque, for Donaldson,” Leyland said. “I said, ahead of time, if we get two outs, I’m going to go with Benoit. I didn’t really want him to have to get five outs, but we were fortunate enough to get two outs before we got to Donaldson, and then we only had to ask Bennie to get four, which I don’t even like him to do, but playoff baseball is a little bit different.”
Benoit then finished the evening by striking out the side, sitting down the heart of the A's lineup -- Moss, Cespedes and Reddick – in order for the save.
Stay tuned for a Game One notebook.
Ryan Gorcey covers Major League Baseball and publishes BearTerritory.net for Scout.com and FOX Sports NEXT. Follow him on twitter at @RGBearTerritory.