OAKLAND The A's weren't exactly tanking when they rolled into Detroit for a four-game series Aug. 26, but little about their previous four series all losses, including to the sub-.500 Astros and Mariners gave a hint of what they would do against the Tigers.
Over 33 innings, the A's scored 34 runs and came within a blown save in the finale of a four-game sweep. Against the top four starters in a rotation that went on to lead the American League in ERA and strikeouts, they had 19 earned runs and 30 hits in 20 innings and didn't allow any of them to pitch past the fifth.
"I think that's kind of what got us on an offensive roll there through the last month of the season," A's first baseman Brandon Moss said this week. "They've got four or five aces over there. And obviously you're not going to do what we did against those guys every night, but to have success against those guys and get on a roll like we did, did a lot for our confidence offensively."
In the 34 games between the All-Star Break and that series, the A's averaged four runs and went 16-18. Starting with the trip to Detroit, they closed the season 24-9, averaging 6.1 runs while tying for the major-league lead in September in runs (162) and home runs (42) and ranking second in the league in OPS (.838).
The four starters the A's faced in that series make up the Tigers' rotation for the American League Division Series that starts tonight when 21-game winner Max Scherzer opposes A's right-hander Bartolo Colon. The A's jumped on Scherzer for six runs (five earned) on eight hits in five innings in August while making the right-hander throw 101 pitches.
Scherzer said of that series Thursday: "They came into Comerica (Park) and whipped us."
"We looked for balls in the middle of the plate and got some," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "He made some mistakes and we got in some decent counts and got him on the run a little bit."
It's not something Melvin is counting on happening again. The A's success against Scherzer came in part from their ability to work counts against the A.L.'s second-leading strikeout artist of the 25 hitters Scherzer faced, 12 saw at least five pitches and five went to full counts.
They also made Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez go over 100 pitches in five-inning outings in that series.
"We're aware that next time we see teams, a lot of times they'll try to get strike one and we can be aggressive early in the count, too," Melvin said. "So it's a little bit of a chess game as far as that goes."
While the A's have a reputation for driving up opponents' pitch counts they faced the fourth-most pitches per plate appearance in baseball this season (3.94) after leading the majors in 2012 hitting coach Chili Davis said it's not always the intention.
"Our main objective is to get pitches we can hit early in the at-bat," Davis said. "We're going to be as aggressive early as they force us to be. If they nibble, then good luck. I think the more you make a pitcher pitch, the more chances of them making mistakes."
Evidence suggests the A's are more comfortable than last year hitting deeper in counts. After leading the majors in strikeouts in 2012, the A's cut their strikeouts by more than 200 to rank 20th this season, while their on-base percentage of .262 in two-strike counts was the fourth-highest.
The Tigers exposed that Achilles' heel in last year's ALDS, with 50 strikeouts in the five games.
"The way our lineup was built last year, it just wasn't a good matchup for us," Moss said. "We still strike out, but it's a different way of striking out the at-bats are longer, work the pitcher better, we're not always trying to hit a home run.
"A lot of us have matured as hitters, and we've brought in guys that do different things."
Will it be enough to make a difference against the Tigers' vaunted rotation?
"It doesn't matter if you get them on a good day or a bad day, their stuff is going to play," Moss said. "On a bad day, they're just missing spots and maybe putting guys on base. That's what we have to do against them. We have to find a way to manufacture runs, and hopefully get some big innings."
FIVE KEYS TO THE SERIES
1. THE COLON FACTOR
Following his mid-August stint on the disabled list, A's pitcher Bartolo Colon allowed just five earned runs in 36 innings to finish his 18-win season. His first start back was against the Tigers, and he allowed one run in five innings. The A's likely need that from Colon in tonight's Game 1 and potentially Game 5 against 21-game winner and Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer, after losing a tight series without Colon (50-game suspension) last year.
2. SLUGGISH HEALTH
The A's Yoenis Cespedes (sore right shoulder) and the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera (sore groin) are less than 100 percent. Both are expected to play Cespedes could be day-to-day defensively and their presence in the lineup poses a threat. But Cabrera's power waned in September, when he hit .278 with one home run, and Cespedes sat out the A's last two regular-season games, making for an even longer layoff that could affect his timing.
3. GET TO THE 'PEN
Only four American League teams had a higher bullpen ERA this season than the Tigers (4.01). So the earlier the A's can chase Detroit's starters, the better. It's also unlikely Detroit will have more than two left-handed relievers, making it difficult to navigate Bob Melvin's matchups.
4. GET CRISP CRACKIN'
While Cespedes anchors the lineup and Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss have supplied power, Coco Crisp is the igniter in the A's lineup. Crisp was the only A's hitter to touch Justin Verlander in last year's ALDS, hitting a leadoff homer in Game 1 that was the lone run Verlander allowed in two starts. This year, when Crisp scored a run, the A's were 53-13; when he drove one in, they were 36-9.
5. TAKE ADVANTAGE
Unlike last year, home-field advantage in the ALDS means the A's are opening at O.co Coliseum, where they had the second-best home record in the league (52-29) behind only Boston. With the third deck open, it will be loud, and the A's will try to feed off that energy. Winning the first two games before the series shifts to Detroit is preferable; splitting is a must.
Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015, and read his online reports at blogs.sacbee.com/ bay-area-baseball.