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.