OAKLAND, Calif. – On a field patched with yellowed sod, from a mound that rose up from the 50-yard line, on the near hash marks, because fall and the Raiders lurk, in a city that could lose its baseball any year now, the Oakland A's. Them again. A 23-year-old with ferocity and touch and a mustache from a First Communion service. A catcher turned hero bought six months ago, in an $8-billion industry, for the price of a one-bedroom East Bay fixer-upper.
Billy Beane, their general manager, led his young son by the hand into the home clubhouse late Saturday and smiled. The catcher he got for $150,000, who'd just caught nine shutout innings against the Detroit Tigers, who'd singled home the winning run – the only run – in the ninth inning, who'd maybe saved the season.
"Yeah," he said. "That's what we do."
Not boastful. Not apologetic. He shrugged. His boy's hand rose with it. They put a kid – Sonny Gray – out there, barely two years out of Vanderbilt, in his 11th big-league start, and when the other guy – Justin Verlander – was done, Gray had more left in him. The people here chanted his name, and they gasped at a 95-mph fastball that leapt from his 5-foot-11 frame, and cheered an old-time overhand curve ball divinely sent.
Verlander, the one they all remembered from Game 5 here last year and not the one who could not find himself for the past six months, threw seven shutout innings. He struck out 11, including Stephen Vogt, the catcher bought from the Tampa Bay Rays in April, at the end of a riveting 10-pitch at-bat with two on and two out in the seventh inning. And Gray, the first-rounder from 2011 taken 17 places after Gerrit Cole and four after Jose Fernandez, answered with nine strikeouts over eight innings, in a scoreless game, in a division series that would head to Detroit, the Tigers having already won Game 1.
When one run would win in the bottom of the ninth inning, after 3½ hours of willful pitching and hopeless swings, Yoenis Cespedes singled to the left of Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who was guarding the foul line against doubles and is sedentary as well. Then Seth Smith singled to the right of Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder, who was holding Cespedes to the bag and is ponderous as well. With none out and his dreams of taking a two-games-to-none lead back home disintegrating, Tigers manager Jim Leyland had Josh Reddick walked to load the bases, then summoned right-hander Rick Porcello, one of the game's premier ground-ball pitchers. Leyland gave Porcello the ball and brought his infielders to the grass and hoped a one-hopper might find a glove.
On the third pitch, Vogt lined a fastball over the head of Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias. Cespedes scored. A pack of A's found Vogt somewhere between first and second bases. They'd won, 1-0, leveled the division series at a game each, and played near flawlessly to do it.
It was raw and charming, like the A's themselves, and the ballpark they play in. It was the young man Gray, who had come inside with a purposeful fastball to the veteran Torii Hunter in the third inning, who'd had Hunter gesture angrily at him, who'd then struck out Hunter with one of his bigger fastballs – at 96 mph – without pause. And then Vogt, who'd been designated for assignment by the Rays, who'd been walking in a mall in Durham, N.C., when notified he was traded to the A's and not, as he'd suspected, out of baseball, who'd hung with Gray and delivered the hit, who wore the postgame pie and Gatorade.
It is how the most taut of postseason pitching duels concluded, with Gray thrilled, with Vogt nearly blacked out from delirium as his line drive settled into left-center field, with the Tigers having been a hit away more than once themselves.
"Tonight's about Sonny Gray," Vogt said. "That's it."
"Sonny Gray," he said, "is as cool as his name."
And so he was. After a somewhat choppy start – searching for plate umpire C.B. Bucknor's strike zone, 14 of his first 27 pitches were called balls – Gray found his place. Twenty of his next 27 pitches were strikes, and good ones. Meanwhile, Verlander was perfect through the first 11 A's hitters, summoned strikeout pitches when he needed them, and by the middle innings it was clear the man who surrendered a run would probably lose.
For the first time in postseason history, two starters would strike out at least nine batters and allow no runs.
"I don't think a lot of people expected us to come in and win this game," Gray said.
But in the end it was there for them. There again. A hit away. Vogt had tried in an epic seventh-inning at-bat, when for nine pitches he'd hung with Verlander, the go-ahead run at third base. He'd fouled back seven pitches. Tigers catcher Alex Avila had gone to the mound twice. They'd thrown him fastballs and curve balls and even a changeup, and still Vogt, whose career had been as quiet as the "G" in his name, was standing there, gamely.
"He just threw the kitchen sink at him right there," Avila said of Verlander.
The 10th pitch arrived at 98 mph, as hard as Verlander threw all night, and beat Vogt above his bat. Redemption arrived two innings later.
"I'm just having fun," said Vogt, who will be 29 in November. "I'm just trusting my knowledge, trusting my ability, trusting what I've been doing my whole life."
Asked what he'd hit, he laughed and said, "A baseball. I don't know. I was just looking for anything to hit."
His previous hardball highlight, he said, was his first big-league hit, which was no small deal. In 18 games with the Rays last season, he was oh-for-25. He was hitless in his first two games with the A's. By June 28, his career batting average through 32 at-bats was .000, when he homered off Joe Kelly of the St. Louis Cardinals. Three-and-a-half months later, after striking out three times against one of the better pitchers of this generation, Vogt knew only the celebration that came with a hard, clean single and all that had brought him here.
[Jeff Passan: David Ortiz can stare all he wants]
"I don't really care how much I was traded for," he said. "I'm just happy to have a job. At the end of the day, I don't care if I get traded for peanuts. Just glad I have a job."
The A's are glad to have him. Glad to have them all. Glad for a game that meant there'd be at least two more, and to marvel at the glorious absurdity of what they'd survived. It is, after all, what they do.
- Sports & Recreation
- Detroit Tigers
- Justin Verlander
- Stephen Vogt
- Yoenis Cespedes