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Breaking down the A’s AL playoff possibilities

So what, exactly, did the A’s accomplish by winning Friday and moving to within one game of securing an American League Wild Card berth?

Perhaps not as much as you might think. Or maybe much more.

The A’s can still host the Tuesday Wild Card game. They can go on the road for the Tuesday Wild Card game. Or they can miss out on Tuesday all together.

Here’s how it all breaks down:

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A’s: Verlander’s velocity dropoff not slowing him down

So what does Wednesday’s clash between the A’s and Detroit starter Justin Verlander mean if the A’s and the Tigers meet again in the post-season?

A third consecutive meeting is a reasonable possibility. After all, Oakland and Detroit lead their respective divisions now, and it’s not clear that either has a sufficiently powerful divisional opponent to change that between now and October.

Last August the A’s hit Verlander. Last October, he dominated them.

Verlander isn’t the same now as then. Even with Wednesday’s win, he’s only 7-7 with a 4.71 ERA. Scouts say he doesn’t throw as hard. The A’s reached him for nine hits and were on the verge of knocking him out of the game, but he persevered.

And Oakland hitters say they’d expect no less in a rematch, reduced velocity or not.

“It’s definitely weird seeing him pitch in the upper 80s and low 90s,’’ A’s catcher Derek Norris said. “I’m used to the guy who reaches back and all of a sudden it’s 97 at your hands. But that is the transitions guys have to make as they get older. You see guys like (the Giants’ Tim) Lincecum doing the same thing.

“Verlander still throws the ball well. He keeps you off-balance. He mixes his pitches. He still pitches. He’s going to be tough.’’

A’s batting coach Chili Davis said the numbers don’t tell the whole story with Verlander, who just eight months ago struck out 10 A’s batters in eight innings in as dominating a Game 5 as Oakland ever wants to see thrown at it.

There was none of that Wednesday, just a solid six-inning performance that, coupled with A’s pitching breakdowns, did in Oakland.

“He’s become more finesse than power,’’ Davis said. “When he came into the majors, he was known as a power pitcher. He still has a good arm – he just didn’t pitch the same way (Wednesday).’’

How does a power pitcher make the change? In a two-decade career, Davis saw plenty who did, and he’s seeing it in Verlander. The right-hander is only 31, but he’s thrown the most pitches by far of any pitcher in the big leagues the last few years.

“He throws sliders to righties, changes and curves to lefties, shows the fastball up, tries to get strikes on the outer part of the plate, gets two strikes every once in a while and tries to surprise you inside,’’ Davis said. “And that’s pretty much what I saw today,” Davis said. “Hitters know he can get his fastball to 97. But are they strikes? Numbers will say his fastball is 91 to 97, but he doesn’t pitch at 97. He pitches 88-to-93, and if I’m a hitter, that’s what I’m looking for.

“I think he can keep winning games. The fastball is going to move; it’s not going to be straight. You might see the curve a little more often. As pitchers evolve, they’re learning new pitches, they’re learning hitters. He’s going to mix it up a lot more now. I’m not saying that’s bad. He’s still a presence on the mound, and guys have to respect his ability to get you out. He’s just evolving into a certain type of pitcher.’’

Brandon Moss’s day Wednesday might suggest that Verlander can be had, at least a little. Moss was 11-for-18 career against Verlander – 11 strikeouts, that is. On Wednesday he homered, singled and doubled while Verlander was on the mound, although the single was just a blooper that fell in left field where no defender was guarding against him.

Moss said it was wrong to dismiss Verlander’s potential impact. He looked back to last August, when Verlander’s power seemed to be on the wane a bit, again to last October, when the man who throws bullets reappeared.

“When he gets guys on base, he can dial it up to 97,’’ Moss said. “He’s a finesse pitcher with a power package.

“For most top-line starters, there’s a regular-season version and there’s a playoff version. We know that about him. He’s done well against us in the regular season, but in the playoffs, he’s going to be dominant.’’

It will be time for the A’s to step up their game.

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ALDS wrapup: A’s left too much of roster unused; Disappointment follows another Game 5 loss

For a team that prided itself on using its entire roster to get through the 162-game season with the best record in the American League West, the A’s got away from their trademark in the post-season.

Four players, pitchers Jerry Blevins and Jesse Chavez, catcher Kurt Suzuki and outfielder Chris Young, didn’t get into a game. Another catcher, Derek Norris, got one at-bat as a pinch-hitter.

That’s essentially 20 percent of the 25-man roster unused.

This is a quick postmortem, but that’s unlike the A’s.

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ALDS Game 5 pressure on shoulders of Oakland organization given its history, not the A’s players

The A’s have been very good at deflecting pressure, putting one foot in front of the other and moving on a very orderly path through the 2013 season.

Does all that change now, with the season down to one game?

They won’t want to admit it, but yes it does.

Just not so much for the players. Most of them went through the disappointment of losing in Game 5 of the 2012 playoffs to Detroit and Justin Verlander, and they know the obstacle the Tigers are.

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Melvin considering Gray over Colon for Game 5

UPDATED at 6:35 p.m. PT

Is there a case to be made for Sonny Gray as the Game 5 starter if the A’s and Tigers wind up getting there?

A’s manager Bob Melvin has to make that call in the next 48 hours after an 8-6 loss to Detroit forced the American League Division Series to a decisive fifth game Thursday.

Before the game, the A’s were going with Game 1 starter Bartolo Colon in Game 5. Colon, the loser in a 3-2 game, may be replaced by Gray, who threw eight shutout innings against the Tigers in Game 2.

Asked after Tuesday’s game in Comerica Park, Melvin said “I haven’t decided yet,” when ask about his Game 5 starter. The Tigers have. By using Max Scherzer in relief to get the win Tuesday, Detroit committed to Justin Verlander, who threw a shutout at the A’s in Game 5 in Oakland last year.

Gray last pitched on Thursday, as did Verlander in a game the A’s won 1-0 after both men were out of the game. Both men would be going on their every-fifth day turn if they are matched up again.

Colon, the A’s 18-game winner who pitched reasonably well but lost Game 1 in the Coliseum, would be pitching with extra rest, which isn’t that big a deal.

What is a big deal is that the Tigers, who have seen Colon over the years, have a book on him. They know what he throws. Colon can beat them, but he hasn’t this year. The A’s are 1-2 in games Colon has pitched against the Tigers this year.

He got no decisions in the two games he pitched against them in the regular season, one win and one loss. The A’s won the first game in 12 innings in the Coliseum in April after Colon allowed three runs in seven innings. The Tigers scored a walkoff win against Grant Balfour on Aug. 29 after Colon had allowed one run in five innings and left with a 6-1 lead.

Gray has only pitched once against the Tigers, but it was a true eye-opener, an eight-inning, four-hit, two-walk, no-run effort in which he, too, didn’t get the win. After Balfour pitched a scoreless ninth inning Saturday in Oakland, the A’s got a walkoff win on Stephen Vogt’s bases-loaded single in the ninth.

Afterward the Tigers were full of praise for Gray, who has pitched well in 10 of his 11 starts since his promotion from Triple-A Sacramento.

The Vanderbilt product seems destined to be a star. What the A’s have to decide now is if they want to double down on Gray in this series.

One major byproduct would mean that Colon would get the Game 1 start against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, where the series will start if Boston comes out of the other ALDS on top, rather than Gray, who has never pitched here.

A’s manager Bob Melvin, in having Gray pitch Game 2 against the Tigers, made a big case for how Gray has pitched well in big games in the Coliseum.

This move would support that.

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Martinez-Balfour good theater, but not much else

There’s something about seeing the benches clear that elevates baseball.

Or at least it seems to elevate interest in baseball, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

The question is – should it?

When Victor Martinez, who is a fiery guy, took exception to the nonstop chatter put forward by A’s closer Grant Balfour in the ninth inning, it made for great theater.

Players, coaches and managers from both benches swarmed the field. Umpires tried to get between Balfour and Martinez. Members of the bullpens, always late to this kind of party, jogged in. A’s starter Jarrod Parker, on his way from the clubhouse to the field just so he could watch the last couple of outs, had to have somebody tell him what happened.

As it turned out, not much did. Martinez was ticked off. Balfour Rage is not a concept he’s familiar with, apparently, but the A’s clsoer is always yelling, mostly at himself, and most of the time opponents don’t give it a second thought.

This time they did. Did it matter? No. The A’s were ahead 6-3 with three outs to go and Balfour on the mound. After things settled down, Balfour got the three outs and the game went in the books as a 6-3 A’s win.

Will there be any carryover? It seems unlikely. Torii Hunter, one of the Tigers’ leaders, has known Balfour as an opponent for years. He said that the talk was just the way Balfour is and there wouldn’t be any carryover.

But it’s a good bet that the first clip on ESPN will be the benches clearing.

Like we said. It’s great theater.

 

 

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Stephen Vogt does where Crash Davis never did

If you don’t think there is something wonderful and downright fun about baseball in the playoffs, then you haven’t met Stephen Vogt.

And if you had seen Vogt six months ago, you wouldn’t have seen someone destined for the limelight. You would have seen a man not feeling the wonder, not feeling the fun, just walking through a shopping mall in Durham, N.C., not far from where another minor league catcher, Crash Davis, made a name for himself.

At the time Vogt had close to 1,900 minor league at-bats in which he averaged .299, but in his only 25 at-bats in the big leagues he was a whopping zero, zilch, nada, nyet for 25.

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Generalissimo Y takes center stage in Oakland

It’s way too early to know if there is a new Mr. October on Oakland’s horizon, but it’s at least worth keeping an eye on the A’s Yoenis Cespedes this month.

In Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Tigers Friday, the A’s left fielder shrugged off the effects of a sore right shoulder to triple and hit a two-run homer, producing the only runs the A’s scored in a 3-2 loss.

He came back Saturday with a pair of singles, the second of which touched off the winning rally that culminated with Cespedes scoring from third base on Stephen Vogt’s bases-loaded single for a 1-0 win.

Those were the sixth and seventh games in Cespedes’ admittedly short post-season career. But they are built upon a base that has the chance to be molded into a towering legacy in baseball’s center stage month. He’s the personification of Generation Y in Oakland. Call him Generalissimo Y.

He’s hit in all seven games while averaging .370 with an OPS of 1.006. Small sample size or not, those are impressive numbers.

There are some players who are just built for the spotlight, and Cespedes seems to be one of those. He floundered most of the year, but when there was a chance that the A’s might not make the playoffs, Cespedes shrugged off September shoulder issues to average .314 with six homers. For a little perspective, his best average in the five previous months was July’s .237.

In his first September pennant drive in 2012, he had season monthly best of seven homers and 19 RBIs as the A’s chased down the Rangers.

There are some classically great hitters who have wilted on the big stage. Just last year Robinson Cano of the Yankees was a woeful 3-for-40. A’s RBI machine Miguel Tejada was 2-for-23 after having racked up 70 extra base hits and 106 RBIs in the 2003 season. Manny Ramirez drove in 165 runs in the 1998 season for the Indians, then went 1-for-18 in the playoffs.

Not to tell A’s manager Bob Melvin how to work his lineup, but he’d be well advised to support Cespedes by keeping Seth Smith in the lineup as the DH for the next few games. Smith had two hits Saturday, both following Cespedes hits and the second setting up the winning run, and Cespedes could use the threat of a hot, productive bat behind him to get better pitches to hit.

All Smith did was hit .393 in September, even when he couldn’t get in the lineup every day. He only played in 15 games and started just seven of those, but .393 is .393, and is going to get respect from the other side. That can only help Cespedes.

(Not that it particularly means anything, but while writing this I went back and looked up what A’s starters did when Smith was hitting behind them during his September hot streak. They went 12-for-23, .522. Add in Cespedes on Saturday and it’s 14-for-27, .518).

Whatever the A’s can do to get Cespedes to get better pitches to hit is a terrific idea.

After all, it’s October. It’s the Generalissimo’s time.

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ALDS Game 2 wrapup: A’s show their fight once again; Coliseum had room for more than baseball

This was what Raul Ibanez meant.

Last week when I was talking with the Mariners outfielder, he praised the A’s mental toughness, their inability to stop fighting. He called them one of the grittiest clubs he had ever seen.

Saturday’s 1-0 win over Detroit was the personification of that game. They scored not a run against former Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander for seven innings, then didn’t score in the eighth after putting two men on base.

Come the ninth inning, the A’s were still clawing. Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith backed up doubles, and after Josh Reddick was intentionally walked, Stephen Vogt came up with the game-winner.

On paper, the Tigers may have the better team. They certainly hit for a better average, and as good as the A’s starting pitching is, the Tigers will say theirs in better. There is no Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander in Oakland.

But as Ibanez was pointing out, some things can’t be measured in statistics alone.

The result makes for some very good baseball. Saturday’s game was as good an exhibition of high-quality baseball as you’re likely to see.

As Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, “This is post-season pitching. That’s what you saw tonight at its best.’’

This kind of victory actually speaks well for the A’s going forward. The Tigers have sent their best two starters at Oakland and only got a split of the games. Jarrod Parker, who pitched a solid Game 1 in Comerica Park last year, goes against the Tigers in a day game Monday, and Dan Straily, whose win on Aug. 28 came at the expense of the pitcher he’ll oppose Tuesday, Doug Fister, has been pitching as well as anyone.

–Billy Beane was asked how Saturday’s scoreless battle between starters Verlander and Sonny Gray matched up with A’s post-season pitching matchups.

Misunderstanding the question, Beane said it reminded him of the 1991 Jack Morris 10-inning 1-0 win, outlasting Atlanta’s John Smoltz, who like Morris did not allow a run.

After that, Beane came up with Barry Zito vs. Mike Mussina of the Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, and Tim Hudson vs. the Yankees Andy Pettitte, also in 2001.

The fact is this one was a classic, for most of us anyway.

Late in the game the A’s general manager brought his kids down to manager Bob Melvin’s office where they, along with A’s managing partner Lew Wolff broke out the crayons and did some coloring.

The preschoolers (not including Beane Sr. and Wolff) “didn’t even know when we scored the winning run,’’ Beane said.