OAKLAND, Calif. — A pair of Oakland rookies, one heralded and the other a relative unknown, provided everything the Athletics needed to tie their AL division series with Detroit at one game apiece.
Stephen Vogt hit a bases-loaded single in the ninth inning after rookie Sonny Gray matched zeros with Justin Verlander in a sensational playoff debut, lifting Oakland over the Tigers 1-0 on Saturday night.
Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith hit back-to-back singles against loser Al Alburquerque to start the winning rally, then Josh Reddick was intentionally walked before Rick Porcello entered to face Vogt. He lined a clean single past drawn-in shortstop Jose Iglesias and into left-center.
“It’s just really nice to come out in front of these home fans in a must-win game and come through,” Gray said. “It was awesome.”
The AL West champion A’s had eight walk-off wins during the regular season, then did it again at the perfect time on baseball’s October stage.
It was Vogt’s first career game-winning hit — and it came after he lost a 10-pitch battle with Verlander in the seventh for his third strikeout of the night.
Grant Balfour pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for the win.
Game 3 is Monday afternoon in Detroit. Right-hander Jarrod Parker, who pitched Game 1 at Comerica Park last year and lost to Verlander, goes for the A’s against 14-game winner Anibal Sanchez.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun the next three games,” Gray said.
Alburquerque struck out two in the eighth. He is still remembered for kissing the ball while recording an out in the ninth inning of a Game 2 win last October.
The A’s got him this time.
Gray hung tough with a masterful Verlander in a thrilling pitchers’ duel between the rookie making his 11th career start and the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. Each calmly worked out of tough jams, wore their emotions on their sleeves — with fist pumps and cheers — and set down the heart of the other’s batting order.
Gray struck out nine in eight dazzling innings, allowing four hits. Verlander, who beat the A’s twice in the ALDS last fall, struck out 11 to give him 33 Ks in his past three postseason outings against Oakland.
At the start of Verlander’s remarkable 2011 season, Gray was finishing up at Vanderbilt before becoming the 18th overall draft pick.
Brandon Moss drew a leadoff walk in the seventh and Reddick singled two outs later with Moss beating a throw to third and Reddick advancing. That gave the A’s their best scoring chance of the night against Verlander, with two Tigers relievers warming.
Vogt fouled off five straight pitches, laid off a ball and fouled another before ball two. He fouled one more but then struck out on a high 98 mph fastball, and Verlander marched off the mound pumping both fists.
Facing his biggest jam of the night with runners at the corners and one out in the fifth, Gray got Austin Jackson to swing on a 3-0 count and later struck him out. Vogt also fired a perfect throw to second base from behind the plate to get Iglesias for an inning-ending double play.
The A’s then missed a key opportunity in the fifth after Cespedes and Smith hit consecutive singles to start the inning. Reddick popped up a bunt attempt and Vogt struck out. Verlander then retired No. 9 hitter Eric Sogard for his ninth strikeout, emphatically pumping his right arm as he walked off the mound.
With a pretty curveball and a fastball firing up to 97 mph, Verlander looked every bit an ace after an up-and-down year in which he managed only one win over his final 10 regular-season starts.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland chose Max Scherzer for Game 1, then insisted Verlander’s 13-12 record was hardly indicative of his pitching despite a couple of rough patches.
Gray could have been rattled when Torii Hunter pointed at him after Gray threw high and inside on a 1-0 pitch in the top of the third. Hunter stepped well out of the batter’s box before returning and striking out on three straight pitches. Gray then fanned 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera to strike out the side in order.
In the sixth, Gray went 1-2-3 on seven pitches against Hunter, Cabrera and Prince Fielder — and walked off the mound to chants of “Sonny! Sonny!”
Jackson, the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, finished with four of Detroit’s nine strikeouts.
Six of Verlander’s first seven Ks this time were called, and he seemed unfazed by a rowdy sellout crowd of 48,292 on its feet and swirling yellow towels all night. The right-hander ran his postseason scoreless streak against the A’s to 22 innings.
Verlander beat the A’s in Game 1 and then the clinching Game 5 in this ballpark last year.
NOTES: Previously, the only rookie with eight or more scoreless innings and at least nine strikeouts in a postseason game was Mike Boddicker in the 1983 ALCS for Baltimore vs. the White Sox. ... Cabrera has reached base safely in all 26 of his postseason games with the Tigers, a franchise best. ... Neither team planned a workout for Sunday’s off day at Comerica Park given the travel with a day game next. ... The A’s had their second-warmest game of the year with a first-pitch temperature of 82 degrees.