OAKLAND – The A’s hopes on Saturday rode on an unproven rookie pitcher, whose catcher happened to be a minor league cast-off until landing with Oakland this season.
Sonny Gray and Stephen Vogt formed an unlikely duo to lift Oakland to a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of their American League Division Series.
[Instant Replay: Gray dominates, A's walk off in Game 2 of ALDS]
But with a sold-out Coliseum crowd going crazy after the walk-off win, Gray and Vogt were the recipients of the celebratory Gatorade showers that always mark an A’s last-inning victory.
Gray earned his with eight shutout innings in his postseason debut, and Vogt delivered the game-winning single in the ninth with the bases loaded off Rick Porcello.
“It was a fun game to have a front seat to,” Vogt said.
Just three months ago Gray was in Triple-A Sacramento’s rotation. He has since become a major piece to the A’s pitching staff, and on Saturday he turned in one of the most compelling individual performances that will be seen this postseason.
Gray limited the Tigers to four hits over his eight innings, matching Detroit’s Justin Verlander pitch for pitch in a scoreless battle that grew tenser with each inning.
The A’s set up their rotation to have Gray pitch Game 2 in front of the home crowd. But after they lost 3-2 in Game 1, even more was riding on the rookie’s outing. The A’s obviously did not want to head to Detroit down 0-2 in this best-of-five series.
Gray shared Friday how he marveled at Verlander on television while pitching at Vanderbilt University in 2011. On Saturday, he won the respect of the former MVP and Cy Young winner.
“Sonny did one heck of a job,” Verlander said. “He was able to use his angst and energy for a positive, and for a lot of young guys it works against them. That’s why veterans usually seem to do better in postseason pressure. He handled himself like a veteran and it was impressive.”
Gray, 23, said he tried to block out the individual battle he was waging with Verlander.
“I wasn’t even watching him pitch,” Gray said. “I wasn’t looking at it as facing Justin Verlander. I had to more focus on their hitters than the opposing pitcher.”
According to ESPN Stats and Info, this was the first postseason game in history in which both starting pitchers struck out nine batters while allowing zero runs.
What made Gray’s start even more impressive were the individual waves of drama he navigated through. He ruffled the feathers of Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter when he came high and tight with a fastball in the third inning.
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Hunter pointed at Gray and kept talking as he prepared for the next pitch. Hunter got plunked in the elbow by Bartolo Colon in his first at-bat Friday. He explained to reporters after Saturday’s game that he just didn’t like pitches being directed near his head.
It was no coincidence that Gray cranked his fastball up to 95 miles per hour to strike out Hunter. He then hit 96 on the radar gun in striking out AL batting champ Miguel Cabrera.
“(Hunter) has been one of my favorite players growing up,” Gray said. “He’s known as a great guy. It really got me fired up.”
The competiveness Gray showed in that sequence impressed A’s closer Grant Balfour.
“It wasn’t that inside,” Balfour said. “I love Torii, but hey, when we’re on the field, anything goes. It’s part of the game.”
Vogt helped Gray escape his stickiest situation in the fifth. With runners on the corners and one out, Gray struck out Austin Jackson and Vogt threw a strike to second to nail Jose Iglesias on a steal attempt to end the inning.
Before Vogt’s game winner, his seventh-inning at-bat against Verlander epitomized the A’s offensive frustration. With runners at second and third and two outs in the seventh, Vogt struck out in an epic 10-pitch at-bat that ended with Verlander pumping a 98 mph fastball by him.
But Vogt would redeem himself. Stepping up with the bases loaded and no outs in the ninth, Vogt lined a single into left-center, raising his arm in triumph as he left the batter’s box and Yoenis Cespedes scored from third.
It’s the pinnacle of a storybook year for Vogt, a 28-year-old rookie who spent most of the previous six years in the minors.
“I remember playing in my front yard with nobody else and imagining hitting a walkoff hit in a playoff game or the World Series,” Vogt said. “It’s everything you dream of and more. I’m so happy right now.”
Vogt wasn’t called up from Sacramento until June. He talked of the rapport he and Gray developed in Triple-A, and how that chemistry has paid off since.
They shared the bill as heroes Saturday night, and in the process pulled the A’s back to even in this series.