OAKLAND -- And so with the season once again on the line in the American League Division Series finale against the Tigers and Justin Verlander, the Athletics have chosen to start a 23-year-old rookie with exactly 13 major league games under his belt -- and a pretty thin mustache above his lip -- over their 40-year-old former Cy Young winner who was their ace this season.
Fans of great pitching will cross fingers that both Sonny Gray and Verlander can duplicate the classic they delivered in last Saturday's 1-0 shutout. And if Gray doesn't repeat, starting the rookie over Bartolo Colon is a decision Oakland fans will surely second-guess.
"We looked at it from a lot of different angles," manager Bob Melvin said of picking Gray over Colon. "We have a lot of smart people in our front office and our baseball operations, and the short of it is it came down to Sonny's last game that he pitched in similar conditions in our ballpark, so that's the route we're going to go."
Gray was spectacular in that Game 2, pitching eight scoreless innings, striking out nine and allowing just four hits -- three of which never left the infield. Verlander was so impressed by the performance that he congratulated Gray when the two passed each other on the field that night.
"He was executing and throwing strikes and getting guys to chase his curveball when he wanted. So that was a big indicator to me that it was going to be a tough night for our guys," Verlander said that night. "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."
Including his Game 2 start, Gray has pitched a total of 72 innings in the big leagues. Colon has thrown 2,583⅔. But it was those eight innings Saturday that convinced Melvin the kid has the experience for a clinching game.
"He's a bulldog. He's scared of nothing," Melvin said. "He right away established what he wanted to do in that game. He's pitched in big games, and when you talk about experience in this type of game, he really does have that experience -- pitching just five days ago. Not too long ago, he pitched in the same venue against the same team with the same type of crowd we're expecting, and he looked pretty comfortable."
Still, the Tigers were facing Gray for the very first time in Game 2. The conventional wisdom is that a pitcher usually has the advantage in such a situation. The key is how he fares after the hitters get to know him and make some adjustments. Gray has a good fastball that also seems to explode on batters because of his arm motion. Will the Tigers fare better having seen it Saturday?
"They saw him two and three times around the lineup during that game," Melvin said. "So, usually, once you see a pitcher once or twice, you have an idea of what he's going to do to you, but the second time around, a little more so. Sonny's able to make adjustments as well, and he has very good stuff on top of it."
It's not like Colon wasn't capable of a big game, though. After all, he was 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA this season. He started Game 1 and the Tigers jumped on his fastball early with three runs in the first inning. The veteran quickly adjusted with a mix off-speed pitches and held Detroit scoreless the next five innings.
Colon took the news well, Melvin said, but won't necessarily be available for bullpen duty. "He's open for anything, but he does have a little different routine, and I'm not sure how I'm going to handle that yet."
Melvin said the Athletics did not consider Colon's availability for a possible ALCS in the decision-making process. He said that while you're always considering all variables, "this is a win-or-go-home game, and we're trying to do the best we can. If we feel like there is an incremental edge one over the other, we feel like that's what we have to do, because it is win or go home."
While the Tigers used likely Cy Young winner Max Scherzer in relief in their come-from-behind, Game 4 win, they could hardly ask for a better pitcher than Verlander in an elimination situation. In fact, in the exact same situation last October -- Game 5 in Oakland -- Verlander threw a four-hit shutout for a 6-0 victory.
Verlander struggled some this season. He entered September with a 3.73 ERA but has pitched more like his old dominant self since then, holding opponents scoreless in four starts, including his past three.
"I think it's been some of the adjustments I made. Well, one of maybe a thousand that I tried to make this year," Verlander said. "It was definitely a grind all year. Then you know it reached a point where I realized it was going to take a while; it wasn't going to be one thing that I had to fix.
"I knew it wasn't going to be a quick process, and I set a date for myself that I needed to be ready at all costs for the postseason. The last month of the season, I think I found some things that really benefited me -- my location, just my stuff in general. I felt like I pitched better, especially the last three, four starts."
Verlander has also dominated the Athletics in the past two Octobers. In three postseason starts against Oakland, he's allowed just one run and 11 hits in 23 innings while striking out 33 batters, 11 in each game (he also beat Oakland in less impressive fashion in Game 2 of the 2006 ALCS).
As Melvin said, "We've run into him, for whatever reason, at the wrong time too many times, but we have to feel confident we're going to do well against him and be successful."
So get the radar guns, the "K" cards and the champagne handy at the Coliseum. It's the kid versus the veteran, with one team advancing to the ALCS and the other heading home.
"I just pitched there my last start, so I guess you know what to expect a little bit -- what the crowd is going to be like -- and it's going to be fun," Verlander said. "It's what you play the game for. It's exciting. This is what you dream of as a kid, to be on the mound in a clinching game."