Programming note: Watch A’s October Quest before Game 1 of the ALDS Friday at 6 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California
OAKLAND – As the A’s and Detroit Tigers prepare to begin the American League Division Series on Friday, here’s a look at five keys for the A’s if they’re going to avenge last year’s ousting from the postseason:
1) Make home field an Advantage
The A’s technically had home-field advantage for the 2012 ALDS, but the format had them playing the first two games on the road. They lost both to fall down 0-2 and couldn’t claw their way back, losing the series in five games. This year it’s a 2-2-1 series format, with the higher seed (Oakland) hosting the first two games along with a Game 5 if necessary.
That’s more of a true home-field advantage, but the A’s need to make the most of it by putting the Tigers in a hole. Splitting Games 1 and 2 is an absolute must, but the A’s obviously should be aiming to head to Detroit with a 2-0 lead. They went 52-29 at the Coliseum this season, the second-best home record in the American League behind Boston (53-28).
Detroit went 42-39 on the road.
2) Enter the Tigers’ pen
Everybody knows how tough Detroit’s rotation is with 21-game winner Max Scherzer, 2011 AL MVP Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. But their bullpen ranked 12th in the league with a 4.01 ERA, and an elbow injury will keep lefty Phil Coke out of the ALDS, hurting Detroit’s middle relief. The A’s need to force the Tigers’ starters out of the game as early as possible, as they did while taking three of four games at Comerica Park in August.
Tigers right-handed reliever Al Albuquerque – who infamously kissed the baseball after a comebacker in last year’s ALDS – has been tough on lefties this season and could be a key man in this series.
3) Sonny forecast?
Rookie Sonny Gray, 23, showed poise over 10 regular-season starts, and the A’s lined him up for a Game 2 start at home to take some pressure off his shoulders. However, the postseason will be unlike any environment Gray has experienced. If the A’s were to drop Game 1, Gray’s performance Saturday becomes even more crucial. Gray has pitched on a big stage before, having led Vanderbilt University to the College World Series in 2011.
“It’s exciting,” Gray said of his Game 2 start. “It’s something you really look forward to growing up.”
4) Can Coco make his impact?
Coco Crisp has a knack for making big plays on a grand stage, and the switch-hitting leadoff man is a key to igniting the A’s offense. Can he continue to make the impact he did in the regular season, when he slugged a career-high 22 homers? Crisp was particularly hot in August and September.
The center fielder rode quite the roller-coaster in the 2012 ALDS, committing an error that contributed greatly to the A’s Game 2 loss, then delivering a walk-off single to win Game 4. Crisp’s importance to the A’s success can’t be overstated at this point.
5) Providing some relief
The bullpen, particularly the late-game combo of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour was vital in the A’s 96-win regular season. But Cook and Balfour both endured some tough times in September. They appeared to right themselves as the regular season drew to a close, but Oakland’s relief corps needs to be air-tight in a series that features two very evenly matched teams that figure to stage close games.