The last time the A’s saw Max Scherzer before Tuesday, the Tigers right-hander was stalking off the mound at a riotous Comerica Park with both hands clenched, having escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam to help the Tigers avoid elimination in Game 4 of the American League Division Series.
The last time the Tigers had seen Sonny Gray was two nights later, when the precocious right-hander started Game 5 for the A’s and lost to Justin Verlander. Opposing each other Tuesday, the two formed what promised to be a marquee pitching matchup of this early season – Gray the A.L.’s ERA leader, Scherzer its reigning Cy Young Award winner.
It didn’t quite follow the script. Five batters in, the Tigers had already scored twice off Gray. The A’s matched that in the second inning, then turned a 4-2 deficit into a one-run lead in the fourth with Scherzer balking in one run and allowing two more on John Jaso’s laser home run to right.
Ultimately, neither starter factored into the decision as the Tigers beat the A’s 6-5. With both starters done after six innings, Torii Hunter hit a tying homer off of Dan Otero in the seventh, and Detroit went ahead in the eighth without a hit – J.D. Martinez walked and pinch runner Rajai Davis took second on a wild pitch and third on a delayed steal and scored on Austin Jackson’s fielder’s choice.
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Gray settled down some after allowing four consecutive hitters to reach with one out in the first – including Miguel Cabrera on an RBI single and Martinez on a double to score Cabrera – retiring the next six before Cabrera’s solo homer in the third. Detroit took a 4-2 lead in the fourth on Alex Avila’s RBI double, marking the first time this year Gray has allowed four runs in a start. His ERA rose from 1.99 to 2.31.
Scherzer, though, could not protect the lead against an A’s lineup that made him work for outs. He had thrown 66 pitches entering the fourth, and after Josh Reddick and Alberto Callaspo singled to start the inning, Scherzer was called for a balk on a pickoff throw to bring Reddick home. Two batters later, Jaso homered on a 1-0 changeup to put the A’s ahead.
Scherzer did not record a 1-2-3 inning until the fifth, but Hunter took him out of line for a loss – and Gray a win – with his home run to straightaway center. Both starters gave up eight hits. Scherzer, who came in averaging an A.L.-best 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings, struck out just four, one fewer than Gray.
Two of Scherzer’s strikeouts came against Brandon Moss, who before the game said that while Scherzer had presented a tough at-bat before his Cy Young season, “the emergence of his changeup (in 2013) made him a much better pitcher.”
“Before that, he was fastball-slider, and you could kind of pick your spots on what was coming,” Moss said. “He started trusting his changeup a lot more last year, and it became such a good pitch for him.”
A prime example came in the fourth game of the ALDS, which Scherzer entered in relief. Down 5-4 in the eighth, the A’s loaded the bases with no outs but didn’t score as Scherzer struck out Reddick and Stephen Vogt and got Callaspo to line out. To retire Reddick, Scherzer threw a full-count changeup low, and Reddick couldn’t lay off. Moss said he’ll “never forget that pitch.”
“You know his best pitch is his fastball, but he was having trouble commanding it and he knew that,” Moss said. “That shows a lot about a guy that he trusts not only his best pitch but his second-best … When he’s on the mound, you can sense the competitor in him.”
It’s a trait also often used to describe Gray, who had made 10 major-league starts before facing Detroit in Game 2 of the ALDS, throwing eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 A’s win. Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said that Detroit’s lineup knew “nothing” about Gray entering the game. Hunter’s impression now after seeing Gray multiple times: “Still good.”
“If he stays healthy,” Hunter said Tuesday afternoon, “and that’s key for any player that has potential, he’ll be one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball.” Asked what gives Gray that ceiling, Hunter said, “The curveball. The curveball and his late life with the fastball.”
The veteran Hunter got a quick read on Gray’s disposition in last year’s Game 2. After an inside fastball early in the game, Hunter barked at Gray and later said he was trying to get inside the rookie’s head.
“He kept his composure and did his thing,” Hunter said Tuesday. “Big ups to him. I think if he stays healthy, he’ll be one of the best pitchers in the game.”