Where do rivalries come from? Are they invented, or do they spring from the game itself? Twenty years later, I remember a comment Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay made on the subject, that rivalries don’t come from the game’s history but from the games on the field.
That seems well worth keeping in mind when you see the white-hot Oakland Athletics sell out a game in April, because it was against the Detroit Tigers, against reigning best pitcher on the planet Justin Verlander no less, and the last time we had that same combination was just six short months ago, in Game 5 of the ALDS. And as Verlander did then, he did it again on Saturday: he killed off the A’s ambitions.
The A’s did everything you ought to do if you’re going to beat the Tigers in a Verlander start, even down big early, even without Yoenis Cespedes. They made him work for every out, pushing him up toward 120 pitches before the sixth inning, and even Jim Leyland wasn’t willing to push his ace for a seventh frame, no matter how exasperating his pen has been, not this early in a season.
Verlander has always been tough on the A’s. Saturday’s start lowered his career RA/9 against them to 2.61; only the Rangers have done less among any opponent he’s faced 10 or more times. They certainly couldn’t beat him in the 2006 ALCS, when he was a rookie helping to kill off the last gasp of the Moneyball A’s. And if the A's are going to have a shot in October, you can’t help but anticipate that they’ll have to beat him at some point to advance.
Fragile A’s ace aspirant Brett Anderson clearly wasn’t up to it on Saturday, although that might have been equal parts his latest physical failing -- a thumb injury suffered in his second start against the Astros on April 7 -- or facing a Tigers lineup loaded with right-handed power as well as a hot Prince Fielder. But after his seven runs and three homers allowed, his team was in a hole.
The Tigers’ bullpen was almost up to pulling the A's right back out of it. Just as they rallied to win in extras on Friday, the A's no doubt pushed Leyland to reach for a quick smoke in the tunnel by scoring two in the seventh and loading the bases in the eighth. If anything was going to help resurrect Jose Valverde sooner rather than later, it would be another game like this. Happily enough for the Kitties, Joaquin Benoit fended them off by getting Jed Lowrie on a called Strike 3, then notching another three K’s in the ninth. Benoit may not yet have his closer’s merit badge to some people’s way of thinking, but outings like this might kill off the Tigers’ simmering closer controversy faster than any deal. If they nip that problem in the bud with the talent at hand, the Tigers will be that much more transparently the team to beat in the AL, in any and every inning.
For an A’s team gunning to prove that 2012 was no accident, that sets up a rivalry based not on divisional alignment or frequent head-to-head matchups on the schedule. It’s aspirational, like the A’s themselves.
So I ask again, where do rivalries come from? If you remember the 2006 ALCS, that’s cool, but it’s also so yesterday. No, a rivalry springs from a lineup that already put a win on the board against the Tigers’ bullpen and created a chance for itself to do so again on Saturday, and not one of the men batting on Saturday was on that 2006 team. And it comes from the veteran relief crew putting away a game it had to if it's going to silence the drumbeat for a Motor City move to bring in an “established closer.”
A rivalry springs from a sellout crowd of East Bay residents pumped up about April baseball because they remember October baseball. And it comes from the shared memories of that impossible run up to October, shared by those in the stands and those on the field, Athletics and Tigers alike, because the Tigers came away from their hard-won ALDS speaking with deep respect for the Coliseum crowd.
It comes from all of these things, from you and from them. It’s the drama that doesn’t need framing, doesn’t need staging, doesn’t need anecdotes about the 1972 ALCS, because this is history writing itself, and everyone remembers the way it was because that’s right now.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.