Broadcaster Buck Martinez said early Thursday night that the A’s had made the right choice in picking Sonny Gray to pitch their deciding game against the Tigers over Bartolo Colon, 17 years his elder and 399 games more experienced.
A’s fans should have winced right then. How exactly, given his 100-115 record as a manager, would Martinez know? (That’s the funny thing about being an analyst in almost any sport. Most of them were wrong often enough to be fired. So why exactly do their opinions now matter?)
Turns out, it didn’t matter whom the A’s pitched, only whom the Tigers did. Justin Verlander threw eight shutout innings and the Tigers won 3-0, extending two streaks: Verlander’s postseason success against the A’s, and the latter’s futility in the postseason.
The A’s are 1-12 in clinching games this century, and have lost six straight deciding games. They haven’t won one of those since Ken Holtzman started and Darold Knowles saved Game 7 of the 1973 World Series vs. the 82-win New York Mets. Presumably, one or both of those were unavailable Thursday, not quite 40 years later.
Some losses are harder to explain than others (Gil Heredia starting Game 5 in 2000? Adam Melhuse and Terrance Long taking third strikes in 2003?) The Jeremy Giambi failing to slide moment of this series for A’s fans will be Josh Reddick swinging at ball four with the bases loaded and none out in the eighth inning of Game 4.
Max Scherzer was celebrated for his relief appearance in Game 4, but he was more willing than effective. The A’s took the lead against Scherzer in the seventh and almost took it back again in the eighth, but for Reddick’s lack of discipline and Alberto Callaspo’s lack of luck on his line drive.
The A’s failed to score in that eighth. Having turned a 4-3 lead over to their bullpen in the seventh, they were outscored 8-2 from there to the end of the series.
Miguel Cabrera homered early Thursday, his first extra-base hit in 52 at-bats and just his third in his last 102 at-bats, dating back to late August, and Verlander finished. His four-game totals from the division series the last two years vs. the A’s: 31 innings, 13 hits, one run, seven walks and 43 strikeouts. Sometimes, you have to acknowledge the opponent.
The Tigers advance to the ALCS for their third straight year, after which their record is spotty. The Tigers are 8-12 after the divisional series in 2011 and 2012, losing to the Rangers in 2011 and sweeping the Yankees in 2012 only to be swept in turn by the Giants in the Series.
And the A’s departure takes the allure of the small-market teams with them. All three of them — the Rays, Pirates and A’s — were eliminated, one after the other, this week. The Cardinals, 11th in payroll, at approximately $116 million, are the smallest market left, and since this is their sixth time in the NLCS in the last 10 years, they’re no underdog.
All of the three teams have good decision-makers in charge, which is a good thing, because they all have big decisions to make: the Rays’ David Price has an arbitration upcoming and expects to be traded, A.J. Burnett has an expiring contract with the Pirates, the A’s Grant Balfour may be in another uniform yelling at Victor Martinez next year.
It’s possible for small-market teams to win and to thrive, but it’s also harder. Here’s the difference: the Red Sox, fourth in payroll at $158 million or so, are paying Ryan Dempster $13 million or so to pitch in only blowouts this postseason.
If the Rays, Pirates or A’s made that kind of mistake, there’d be no offseason. Money may not buy love, or even absolution. But it does buy redemption, or at least an opportunity at such.