The game stories might end up being about Stephen Vogt and that’s fine. He got the big walk-off hit and he hasn’t been celebrated much so far in his baseball career. But, as with many big moments, the seeds that resulted in that wild finish were sown much earlier in the day.
Consider the third inning.
Sonny Gray brushed back Torii Hunter, who was hit in Game One. Because he was hit, he was a bit on edge, and the pitch was high and tight as you can see below on the plot from Brooks Baseball. Hunter felt after the game that it was a bit too close to his head.
So Hunter gestured at Gray, and the crowd began to percolate (click for GIFs and audio). After the game, Sonny said that Hunter was one of his favorite players growing up and that the former Angel once hit a line drive that “almost took my head off.” The moment on Saturday night got the pitcher “fired up a little bit.” But though he had “a little extra adrenaline,” Gray felt he was “still able to locate the ball.”
Sonny Gray hit 96+ mph one time all year. He’s thrown 995 pitches. Over the rest of the third inning Saturday night, Gray threw eight more pitches. Three of them went faster than 96 mph. A fourth went 95.98. The pitch to strike out Torii Hunter was the fastest pitch he threw out all year. The last 96 mph fastball of the inning struck out Miguel Cabrera to end the inning.
In the seventh inning, Gray still threw 94s and 95s to Miguel Cabrera, after averaging 93 on his fastball for the season. He averaged 94.6 on the fastball Saturday. One of his pitches went 96.7, and his previous max on the year was 96.4. That extra oomph helped him go toe to toe with Justin Verlander.
Before the game, Oakland radio host Guy Haberman asked Oakland manager Bob Melvin if there was any particular reason he was batting Jed Lowrie ahead of Josh Donaldson if he’d said in the past that it was “basically a coin flip.” Melvin tried to leave the question unanswered, but when pushed (“Is there a particular reason?”) he was contrite (“There is, but I’m not going to get into it, respectfully”).
We thought before the game that there might be something about trying to keep Drew Smyly away from lefty Brandon Moss. In the seventh inning, we saw exactly that unfold. Smyly came on to face the ninth spot, and Alberto Callaspo doubled. Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie swung around to the right side of the plate, and the A’s got one walk from them. With Josh Donaldson coming up, Al Alburquerque was brought in to face the righty. Had Melvin batted Donaldson ahead of Lowrie, Detroit Manager Jim Leyland could have used Albuquerque first, and then brought Smyly on to face Moss.
It may not seem like these things factored into the final inning. But Gray’s velocity and effectiveness kept the team in it while they were whiffing against an ace pitching like an ace in Justin Verlander. And maneuvering to keep both Brandon Moss (and therefore Alburquerque) in the game may have helped set the scene for Stephen Vogt‘s wild ride.