OAKLAND – Nearly an hour after the Oakland Athletics' 1-0 win in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, the talk in the Detroit Tigers' clubhouse had little to do with Stephen Vogt's walk-off single or Justin Verlander's 11-strikeout masterpiece.
The buzz was all about Sonny Gray.
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It wasn't just players answering reporters' questions, but chatting among themselves about the kind of performance rarely seen from a rookie in the glare of the playoffs.
The record will show closer Grant Balfour got credit for the victory when Vogt's ninth-inning single drove in Yoenis Cespedes with the game-winner. But the reason the series heads to Detroit tied 1-1 is Gray put on a pitching clinic not even Verlander could match.
Gray, the 18th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Vanderbilt, threw eight sparkling innings, giving up four hits and striking out nine to breathe life into the A's chances. He earned chants of "Son-ny! Son-ny!'' from the sellout crowd of 48,292 every time he returned to the dugout in the late innings.
"His fastball was his best pitch today, and I thought coming in his curveball was good,'' said Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, who went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. "He threw more fastballs to me than I saw in video. He's got a cutter and it's 95 (mph), it's explosive. He's got everything to be one of the best pitchers in the game.''
The Tigers had just the right setup to take the back home with a commanding 2-0 lead, as Verlander regained his 2011 form and threw like the game's best pitcher. The former MVP and Cy Young Award winner retired the first 11 batters he faced, combining a fastball has high as 98 mph with a wicked curve nearly 20 miles slower.
Gray, who was making his 11th career start and first postseason appearance, was even better.
He was still mixing 95-mph fastballs with devilish curveballs in the eighth, stranding Don Kelly at second by striking out Austin Jackson for the fourth time and getting Hunter to pop up to first.
Gray's biggest challenge to that point was a dicey fifth in which Detroit got runners on first and third with one out, the product of a leadoff walk and an infield single. After falling behind 3-0 to Jackson, Gray came back to strike him out while Vogt threw out Jose Iglesias trying to steal second to end the inning.
"That is a huge play in the game,'' A's manager Bob Melvin said. "Now it gets forgotten a little bit based on the fact that the game went so long and there were zeroes, but at the time, that's as big of a play as ultimately the hit (Vogt) got.''
Gray became the second A's pitcher, after Hall of Famer Chief Bender, to throw at least eight innings with nine strikeouts and four or fewer hits in a postseason game.
"His curveball is probably one of the better ones we've seen,'' said Jackson, who struck out all four times up against Gray. "He had a live fastball with a little natural cut. It's tough for anybody, let alone a rookie, to go out there and pitch the way he did. You have to tip your cap. That's a tough lineup he was facing.''
After two games that featured some of the finest starting pitching of this postseason, the Tigers and A's – who had the best two starters' ERAs in the AL – will get a chance to prove how deep their rotations go. The fellows assigned to start Games 3 and 4 at Comerica Park will have a huge task to live up to.
Verlander, passed over for the Game 1 assignment in favor of Max Scherzer, left no doubt he still has No. 1 stuff with his impressive performance, including a tense 10-pitch confrontation with Vogt in the seventh.
The A's had runners on second and third with two outs of a scoreless game when Vogt stepped to the plate, having struck out twice already. The A's catcher fell behind 0-2, then proceeded to work the count to 2-2, fouling off one 97 mph fastball after another. It wasn't until Verlander ramped it up to 98 that he got the dogged Vogt to swing through for strike three.
It was Verlander's last pitch of the game, his night done after seven innings and 117 pitches.
"I think that put the nail in the coffin,'' Verlander said. "I went up to 120 pitches and Jim wasn't going to send me back out. If that was a one- or two-pitch out, I might have been able to go back in for the eighth.''
Gray opened some eyes – and irked one Tiger – when he struck out the side in the third, none with his signature late-breaking curveball. Instead, Jackson, Hunter and Miguel Cabrera went down on fastballs, the latter two swinging through 96 mph heat.
Hunter took exception to one fastball that came a bit too close to his chin, the second time he has been buzzed in the series. He was also hit by a Bartolo Colon pitch Friday.
The A's loaded the bases in the ninth. And scored the winning on Vogt's single.
Gray did not appear to notice Hunter gesturing in his direction after the wayward pitch, and if he heard anything the Tigers right fielder had to say, he ignored it. Three pitches later, Hunter was whiffing and heading back to the dugout.
"It got me fired up a little bit,'' Gray said. "After that, I had a little extra adrenaline, I really did. I was able to still locate the ball, though.''
He did that all night in an unforgettable performance.
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