Stephen Vogt had the opportunity to play hero in the seventh inning. After an epic 10-pitch at-bat during which he fouled off seven pitches, Vogt struck-out swinging to leave two runners on base in a 0-0 game. Vogt wouldn't let the chance to be the hero pass him by again.
With the game still tied at 0-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Vogt came to the plate with the bases-loaded and no outs. Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith started the inning with base hits off of Detroit Tigers' reliever Al Albuquerque. After walking Josh Reddick intentionally to load the bases, Albuquerque was relieved by right-hander Rick Porcello. On a 1-1 count, Vogt lined a solid single past the drawn-in infield, giving the A's a must-win, 1-0 walk-off victory.
"You come up bases loaded, nobody out, and that's what you dream of," Vogt said. "Look for something out over the plate, stay in the middle of the field. I was just fortunate to come through."
The decisive moment of the game might have come in the ninth inning, but the real story of the game was on the mound. Starters Sonny Gray and Justin Verlander matched zero after zero, making history in the process. Gray, in his first post-season start and only his 11th start at the major-league level, matched a career-high with eight innings pitched. He struck-out nine, walked two and allowed just two runners in scoring position. Verlander, the former AL MVP and Cy Young award winner, struck-out 11 and walked just one in seven scoreless innings. He extended his post-season scoreless streak to 22 innings against the A's.
Neither pitcher would factor in the decisions, making it the first time in post-season history that both starters struck-out at least nine and didn't allow a run. Verlander also became the only pitcher in post-season history to strike-out 11 batters and not earn a win.
After the game, Verlander had plenty of praise for his rookie counterpart.
"[Gray] was executing and throwing strikes and getting guys to chase his curveball when he wanted," Verlander said. "So that was a big indicator to me that it was going to be a tough night for our guys. And at that point, you hope to scratch across a run.
"He doesn't have a huge sample size of Major League experience, but what he's done since he's got here has been very good. So you know he's not just going to go out there and hand the game over to you."
On the day before his start, Gray said that he would likely be emotional on the mound and that he planned to use that emotion to his advantage. That appeared to be the case, especially after a Torii Hunter at-bat in the third inning. Early in the at-bat, Gray threw a fastball up-and-in to Hunter. It moved him off the plate and Hunter indicated his displeasure with the pitch. That seemed to motivate Gray even more, as his fastball crept up to 96. He would strike-out Hunter in that at-bat and would go on to strike-out five more over the next 4.1 innings.
After the game, Gray admitted that the Hunter third-inning at-bat gave him a little additional adrenaline.
"He's been one of my favorite players growing up, watching him play. He is known as a really great guy and it got me fired up a little bit. It did," Gray said.
"After that, I had a little extra adrenaline, I really did. I was able to still locate the ball though, so that was what it was."
Vogt said Gray was never awed by the post-season pressure.
"It's a testament to the kid he is, I think. I have had the opportunity to catch him a majority of the year, Triple A and the big leagues, and he's been the same kid every day," Vogt said. "Even today we were joking around like we always do. You could tell in the bullpen he was going to have a great night.
"He didn't change anything about who he was. He went out there on the stage and stayed Sonny Gray. He's so much fun. I'm excited to see what he can do."
One of Gray's nine strike-outs came against Tigers' leadoff hitter Austin Jackson in the fifth inning. Jackson would strike-out all four times against Gray, but the third of his four Ks was a pivotal moment. Thanks to a lead-off walk and a one-out infield single, the Tigers had runners at the corners and one out when Jackson came to the plate. Gray would fall behind Jackson 3-0 before fighting back to strike him out swinging.
The Tigers put the runner at first (Jose Iglesias) in motion on the pitch and Vogt threw him out easily to complete the inning-ending, strike-him-out-throw-him-out double-play. That would be the only time the Tigers reached third base against Gray in his eight innings.
A's manager Bob Melvin called the Vogt throw the play of the game.
"Sonny is usually really quick to the plate, but that particular pitch, he needed to make a pitch and was probably as slow to the plate as he was all game," Melvin said.
"Stephen got off an unbelievable throw and Sonny was about 1.4 and Stephen needed to get a 1.8 down there to get the runner. That is a huge play in the game. Now it gets forgotten about a little bit based on the fact that the game went so long and there were zeros. But at the time, that's as big of a play as ultimately the hit that he got [to win it]."
"That was a huge play for us in a lot of ways," Vogt said. "To get us out of that inning and keep it where it was was great."
Verlander was just as dominating as Gray, if not more so. He carried a perfect game into the fourth inning, when Josh Donaldson broke it up with a groundball single. Verlander would allow two base-runners in both the fifth and seventh innings, but the A's were unable to score in either inning. Verlander's final pitch was a high fastball that Vogt swung-through in the seventh inning, ending an epic 10-pitch battle.
The A's two best chances to score came in the fifth and in the eighth. In the fifth, Cespedes and Smith started off the inning with back-to-back singles. Reddick attempted to bunt over the runners, but he popped out to third and the rally fizzled. In the eighth, pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo led-off with a double against reliever Drew Smyly, but Coco Crisp fouled out. After a Jed Lowrie walk, the Tigers would bring in Albuquerque. He struck-out Donaldson and Moss to end the inning.
After Gray was finished with his eight innings, the A's turned to closer Grant Balfour with the heart of the Tigers' line-up coming up. Balfour struggled some during the final months of the regular season, but he retired Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez on flyballs for a 1-2-3 inning.
"He did what he does best," Vogt said.
Over the past two years, the A's and Tigers have played seven post-season games. Three have ended in walk-off wins for the home team, and all but one was decided by more than two runs. When asked why the two teams seem to match-up so well against each other, Melvin pointed to the tenacity of both clubs.
"They fight hard. They have good pitching and typically don't beat themselves. Simply put," Melvin said. "You expect more high-scoring games based on both offenses, but pitching can rule the day. I think both teams have a lot of will and a lot of fight and don't beat themselves."
The series will resume on Monday in Detroit at 10 a.m. Pacific (1 p.m. local time). 2013 AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez will square-off against A's right-hander Jarrod Parker.
NOTES: Once again, Yoenis Cespedes was the A's best hitter in the post-season. He had two of the A's eight hits, including the rally-starter in the ninth. Cespedes has hit safely in all seven of his post-season games, the longest-such hitting streak in Oakland A's ALDS history…Seth Smith had two hits in four at-bats, continuing a hot stretch that began in September….Brandon Moss has 13 strike-outs in 22 playoff at-bats with the A's the past two years…Gray is the second pitchers in A's franchise history to go at least eight innings with no runs allowed, four or fewer hits allowed and at least nine strike-outs.