Athletics 4, Tigers 3 (box score)
For eight and a half innings the game went nearly as well as the Tigers could have scripted. Another run or two would have been nice, but there’s not too much to complain about when the ball is handed over to the closer in the ninth inning with a two-run lead.
Max Scherzer pitched well, if not incredibly deep into the game. He was clearly losing command in the sixth inning, but his line – 5.1 IP, 8 SO, 1 R, 1 BB, 3 H – was just about as good as anyone could have hoped. Octavio Dotel and Phil Coke got the Tigers through the rest of the inning while inciting only minor heart murmurs, and Al Alburquerque threw a very clean seventh.
That got the ball to Joaquin Benoit – the object of much consternation for Tigers’ fans over the past several days and weeks – in the eighth inning with a two run lead. Benoit allowed a hit and a walk after recording the first two outs, but justified Jim Leyland’s faith in him by striking out Brandon Moss (a power hitting lefty) to end the inning. That was supposed to be the tough inning and Benoit was supposed to be low on confidence, but he got the club through it. The series was three outs from being over.
Enter Jose Valverde. Four hits and only two outs later the Athletics were celebrating the win on the field. I spent the late night and early morning angry at Valverde for failing to close out the two-run – which should be automatic for a “closer” – but he was throwing strikes, and the A’s simply came up with hits. Oakland put five balls in play in the bottom of the ninth, and four fell in for hits. That can happen in small samples and against low-90’s fastballs, but you don’t really expect an .800 BABIP.
Josh Reddick’s leadoff single came on a fastball at the very bottom of the strike zone (not a bad pitch). It simply bounced over the glove of a diving Omar Infante. Josh Donaldson doubled on a fastball that was up and over the plate (a poorly located pitch, Avila was set up low). Seth Smith followed with a double off a pitch that would have painted the outside black and squarely hit Avila’s glove. George Kottaras followed with a pop out and Cliff Pennington struck out to keep the Tigers in a position to remain in the game, but Coco Crisp grounded a first-pitch splitter (that was pretty much right down the middle) into right field to plate the winning run.
Valverde made a few bad pitches, sure, and his stuff isn’t the same as it was a year ago (he struck out Alex Rodriguez to end game five of last year’s ALDS on a 94.2 MPH fastball, his fastball averaged 91.5 MPH yesterday), but he made the pitches that would get the job done more often than not. Credit goes to Oakland for coming up with the big hits.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of Valverde as a closer and I’m squarely against him returning to the Tigers in 2013, but he wasn’t any worse last night than he’s been all year. In a way he was better because he wasn’t walking guys. He’s not blowing away guys with his fastball (which in turn also makes his splitter less effective), but the Tigers have few alternatives. They’re going to live or die with Benoit and Valverde in the high pressure innings.