Oakland, Detroit, and a Tale of Three Fastballs

When the Tigers fell behind the A’s two games to one in the series, they knew they’d need either Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander to pitch well if they were to advance. As it turned out, they needed them both — Scherzer recorded some critical outs in Game 4, and then Verlander recorded a lot more of them in Game 5, starting in what would’ve been Scherzer’s place. For eight innings on Thursday, Verlander was virtually unhittable, removing any would-be suspense from a potentially suspenseful game. At times on Tuesday, the A’s would’ve figured this would be Scherzer’s start, if necessary. At times on Tuesday, the A’s would’ve figured they’d have Thursday off. It was in Game 4 that the A’s were in position to lock this series up. In Game 5, they never really stood a chance.

The question coming in was whether the Tigers or A’s would emerge from this triumphant. The question in the middle innings became whether the A’s would so much as get a runner on base. Nobody reached until Josh Reddick‘s walk in the bottom of the sixth. Nobody got a hit until Yoenis Cespedes‘ single in the bottom of the seventh. There wasn’t suspense until the game’s final batter, and by then Verlander had been removed. On October 6, 2012, Coco Crisp led off Game 1 of the ALDS with a home run against Verlander. He hasn’t given up another postseason run to the A’s in four starts, whiffing 43. It’s an all-time record, and it’s active, pending the future.

For eight innings, Verlander mowed the A’s down. With one swing of the bat, he was given all the run support he’d need. After Verlander was gone, the A’s couldn’t seize their one final chance. This was a Game 5 decided by three separate fastballs.

Sonny Gray‘s fastball

One of them, in the top of the fourth, to Miguel Cabrera. Gray was given this start over Bartolo Colon because of the way that he dazzled in Game 2. It was a perfectly justifiable decision, both emotionally and statistically, and through three and a third innings, Gray held the Tigers hitless. Torii Hunter singled to bring up Cabrera, but Cabrera hadn’t been Cabrera for more than a month, and Gray had little trouble disposing of him earlier in the series. Cabrera these days can draw nothing from his lower body. The A’s had had success pitching him with fastballs away. Gray’s first pitch to Cabrera was a fastball, away.

Then Stephen Vogt called for a fastball and set up low and inside. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong idea — you need to pitch Cabrera inside often enough to keep him honest. You can’t let him be looking away, because then that shifts the balance of power. Even with Cabrera in his current state, he needs to see inside pitches. He likes inside pitches, but inside pitches located well probably aren’t inside pitches he’s going to punish. Not this month. Vogt set up around Cabrera’s knees, hugging the plate’s inner edge.

Were the pitch executed, maybe Cabrera grounds it foul. Maybe he grounds it fair, to third, for a fairly routine double play. Maybe it misses for a ball, but at least then Cabrera would’ve seen a pitch in, and Gray could return to the outer half. All Gray needed to do was make sure to bust Cabrera down and in. He didn’t do that.

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Instead of pitching at the knees, Gray pitched at the belt. Instead of pitching at the edge, Gray pitched over the plate. He missed in both the wrong directions, and Cabrera didn’t miss at all, muscling the ball just past the fence, almost entirely with his upper body. It wasn’t a healthy Cabrera swing, and the ball was feet from being caught, but it was a healthy Cabrera outcome, and even this Cabrera can still give a ball a ride if it’s in the right location. Everything’s there but his legs, and a fastball over the inner third at the belt is going to allow Cabrera to achieve his maximum bat speed. Gray pitched to the one spot he shouldn’t have, and he turned an injured Cabrera into a hero. This was one of two inside pitches Cabrera saw all game.

The odds, of course, were that even this pitch would not be hit out of the park. Homers are never easy, especially when you’re hurt. But of all the possible pitches, this was probably the most likely to go away. The A’s had Cabrera where they wanted him, but pitching accurately all the time is really hard.

Justin Verlander’s fastball

All of them, because I’m cheating. When Gray made a mistake with his fastball to make the game 2-0, one got the sense this would go a lot like last year’s Game 5 between the two teams. One got the sense those runs would be enough, because Verlander looked terrific, or the A’s batters looked awful, or both. It just had the feel of one of those dominant complete games in which the trailing team would never have a chance, and though lots of games feel like that and subsequently change course, Verlander never wavered, and the A’s never threatened until after he was gone. From the get go, Verlander was in control. When he got his run support in the fourth, it felt like the A’s were too far behind. Whatever critiques there have been of Verlander this season, they all sound like reactionary silliness now.

On Thursday, Verlander tied his career high by generating 24 swinging strikes. He got one of those on his slider. Two of them, he got on his curve. Three of them, he got on his changeup. That leaves another 18, which he got on his fastball. That ties another Verlander high, of fastball whiffs during the PITCHf/x era. As much as people know about Verlander’s secondary pitches, he’s most famous for his heat, and for a while his heat was almost all he needed. Through six innings, three of four pitches were fastballs. Toward the end, he leaned more on his changeup and curveball, but by then the fastball had been established, so the A’s didn’t know what to expect.

Brandon McCarthy remarked on Twitter that, early on in earlier games in Oakland, there can be some issues with hitter visibility. The A’s missed with 11 of 19 swings through three innings, eight of those coming against heat. Verlander said later he felt like he had good life, and the A’s weren’t picking up his fastball, so he wasn’t going to go away from it until they made him. They never really made him, and by the point Verlander started to feel tired, A’s hitters were conditioned to look for the heat and weren’t prepared for the other stuff. This was a version of Verlander whose primary pitch was also a putaway pitch.

The fastball was Verlander’s story, much in the way that the curveball has been Adam Wainwright‘s story. And it’s that same fastball that was used to explain Verlander’s apparent struggles earlier in the year. Through July 30, Verlander’s heater generated 16.5% whiffs. Since July 31, it’s come in over 27%, and just these last three starts, it’s at 40%. For a while, Verlander was known for gaining strength over the course of a game. Now it seems he’s gaining strength over the course of a season, and he might be peaking in October. If he’s not truly Justin Verlander again, he at least feels like he is.

Joaquin Benoit‘s fastball

One of them, in the bottom of the ninth, to Seth Smith. Benoit started the inning, serving as Detroit’s closer with a 3-0 lead, and there was a lot of debate over whether Jim Leyland was right to take Verlander out, considering the success he was having. Benoit has some track record of shakiness, see, while Verlander has a track record of Verlander, and for the first time it felt like the Tigers were a little bit vulnerable. The truth, as it came out later, was that Verlander admitted after the eighth to being out of gas, but it still felt like Benoit gave the A’s one last opening. The first two batters made outs.

Then Jed Lowrie singled and stretched it into a double. Then Yoenis Cespedes got hit by a 2-and-2 pitch he almost swung at. The A’s were down to their last batter, but all of a sudden, that last batter was the tying run, in the person of Smith, batting left-handed. This was the game’s only suspense, and three pitches in, Smith was ahead. Alex Avila called for a fastball on the outer edge at the knees. Benoit threw a fastball inside the outer edge at the belt.

It was a location that Smith has taken deep before:

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As Smith stood in, all observers were nervous. As the pitch was delivered, eyes grew large — the thing to avoid was a long fly ball, and long fly balls are hit off elevated fastballs. In a hitter’s count, with the game on the line, Smith was given an elevated fastball.

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Maybe, the pitch was just a little far away. Maybe Smith tried too hard to pull it. Maybe he had just too miscalculated a swing path. To the last pitch of their season, the A’s were alive, and Benoit ended with a mistake. But not all mistakes get punished. Some mistakes seal series. Smith did have a chance, and Smith did get a pitch, but pitching is hard, and hitting is harder. As quickly as the pitch widened eyes out of Benoit’s hand, people knew that the series was over, before Torii Hunter had so much as settled in a spot.

Six times since 2000, the A’s have played an ALDS Game 5. Six times since 2000, they’ve lost. The last two times, they’ve lost at the hands of Justin Verlander, and Verlander made sure to never even give them a chance. A year ago, Verlander went the distance. This time he came an inning shy, allowing the A’s one final gasp. But in a game decided by fastballs, the A’s couldn’t make enough of the last one they saw. Mistakes were made with two crucial fastballs. With too many other fastballs, not a thing was mistaken.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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