OAKLAND – Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter spun away from an inside pitch and shot a look at A's right-hander Sonny Gray, then gestured toward the mound. It was the third inning of a scoreless game, and Gray, a 23-year-old right-hander, had been hitting 95 mph on the radar gun regularly but nothing above.
The O.co Coliseum crowd began to boo lustily as Hunter, still reacting to the pitch, took his time before stepping back into the batter's box. When he did, six of Gray's next eight pitches were fastballs. Four registered at 96 mph, the last waved at fruitlessly by the reigning MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
Chosen to pitch Game 2 of the American League Division Series in just his 11th big-league start, Gray rose to the occasion, outlasting former Cy Young winner and MVP Justin Verlander into the eighth inning of a scoreless game.
The A's won it in the ninth on Stephen Vogt's bases-loaded single, giving them a walk-off 1-0 win, and now head to Detroit with the series even at one game apiece.
A's closer Grant Balfour was the pitcher of record, having thrown a scoreless ninth, but the A's were still in position to win because of Gray.
Facing a Tigers lineup that scored the second-most runs in baseball this year, the rookie gave up just four hits and struck out nine, becoming the second pitcher in A's history to post those numbers over eight shutout innings in a playoff game. The other was Chief Bender in 1905.
"The 'W' goes to Sonny tonight," Balfour said. "He was the man, the MVP, whatever you want to call him.
"That's a huge win. It was kind of a must-win, in a way."
With it, the A's avoided a 2-0 series deficit, which they've never overcome in eight previous playoff series. Earlier in the week, Gray said the last time he'd pitched in such a meaningful game was in 2011 – in the College World Series.
Gray said he "wasn't as amped up as I thought I was going to be," but acknowledged the encounter with Hunter in the third "got me fired up a little bit. After that, I had a little extra adrenaline. I really did. I was still able to locate the ball, though."
Through eight innings, he kept the A's in a game in which their offense could do nothing against Verlander, who has now thrown 22 consecutive scoreless innings against the A's in the postseason. Verlander struck out 11 – the A's have 29 strikeouts in the first two games of the series – but those at-bats drove up his pitch count, and Verlander left after seven innings having thrown 117 pitches.
Yoenis Cespedes led off the ninth with a single against Tigers reliever Al Alburquerque, and Seth Smith singled to send Cespedes to third. After the Tigers walked Josh Reddick to load the bases, Vogt lined Rick Porcello's 1-1 pitch into left-center for the eighth postseason walk-off win in A's franchise history, which netted Vogt a shaving cream pie in the face and Gatorade shower.
"Outstanding," Vogt said. "I've never been so excited. They were nice – they did it gentle."
Previously, the A's had squandered several chances, leaving two men on base in the fifth, seventh and eighth innings. In the seventh, Verlander struck out Vogt in a 10-pitch battle to strand runners on second and third, throwing a 98-mph fastball for strike three on his final pitch of the night.
Gray, too, escaped jams, none more dramatically than in the fifth, again with Vogt's help. With Tigers on first and third and one out, Gray struck out Austin Jackson on a full-count fastball, and Vogt delivered a strike to second base to catch Jose Iglesias trying to steal.
"Sonny is usually really quick to the plate, but that particular pitch, he was probably as slow to the plate as he was all game," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "Stephen got off an unbelievable throw."
As Gray left the mound after getting Hunter to fly out to end the eighth, an announced crowd of 48,292 rained down chants of "Son-ny!" Gray later said he didn't think during the game about matching zeroes with Verlander, because "if I do that, then one of their hitters is going to get you."
Verlander, though, was taking note.
"I had a feeling it was going to be close and one run might do it," Verlander said. "That was just from watching him."
Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015, and read him online at blogs.sacbee.com/ bay-area-baseball.