A youth movement is upon us in the MLB playoffs. On the same day Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle will start rookie right-hander Gerrit Cole over veteran A.J. Burnett in a decisive Game 5 in St. Louis, the Oakland A's have announced 23-year-old rookie Sonny Gray will get the start over All-Star Bartolo Colon when they face the Detroit Tigers in their own Game 5 on Thursday.
Gray will square off against Justin Verlander in a rematch of their spectacular Game 2 duel at O.co Coliseum. On that night, Gray and Verlander combined to throw 15 scoreless innings, allowing only eight hits (four each) while striking out 20. The A's eventually won the game 1-0 on Stephen Vogt's ninth inning single, evening the series at 1-1.
Gray, making only his 11th major league start in Game 2, showed that he could hold up to the immense pressure of the postseason. Another loss for Oakland would have put them on the brink of elimination, which alone provided a daunting task. Then the realization had to set in that Verlander was razor sharp and the margin for error was minimal at best.
Gray never buckled, though, and actually pitched deeper into the game. That earned the respect of everyone lucky enough to witness the performance, and most importantly earned the confidence of manager Bob Melvin to start Gray in a do-or-die Game 5.
“He’s a bit of a bulldog — and he’s scared of nothing,” Melvin said of Gray while also acknowledging the influence his previous start had on his decision.
Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle noted a couple other possible deciding factors for manager Bob Melvin:
Colon has not defeated the Tigers since April 13, 2003, going 0-7 with a 6.93 ERA against them in his past 14 regular-season starts.
Colon allowed three first inning runs in Game 1 before shutting Detroit's offense out over his final five frames. Those three runs held up though in the Tigers Game 1 win, and it's a scenario Oakland couldn't afford to have repeated in Game 5.
In addition, the A’s clearly like getting Gray starts at home when possible; he pitched the regular-season home finale, when Oakland won the AL West title, and he started Game 2, with Jarrod Parker going in Game 3 at Detroit. Should the A’s advance to the ALCS, they would open on the road at Boston on Saturday.
Even with the numbers and his gut strongly favoring Gray, the decision was not an easy one for Melvin. Bartolo Colon has battled for him all season, earning a trip to the All-Star game in the process. Going in another direction for the most important game of the season was a rough call to make, but Melvin says the 40-year-old veteran quickly put his mind at ease when he privately told him the news.
”This guy has 18 wins, he’s been as consistent as you can be, he’s an All-Star, an 18-year veteran,” Melvin said. “And he made it easy on me. He said, ‘OK, I just want to win.’ He definitely could have had a gripe with the decision and I wouldn’t have been surprised but he made it easy.”
It's clear everyone is on board with Melvin's decision. Now it's up to Sonny Gray to prove it was the right decision. That will be a task much more daunting than his Game 2 start against Detroit, but you can bet Bob Melvin's bulldog won't back down.