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Lowell Cohn: Bob Melvin's trust in Sonny Gray pays off with A's win


OAKLAND — There was a feeling of the inevitable to Game 2 — A's vs. Tigers. A feeling that Sonny Gray would throw zeroes until the end of time and Justin Verlander, as great as he is, could do no better than that.

There was a feeling that somehow the game was out there for the taking, that the Tigers would approach their give-it-up moment, and the A's would take advantage of it.

And that's exactly what happened.

The A's were fighting to stay alive, nothing less. They embraced life because they trusted a 23-year-old rookie pitcher who came up to the majors six weeks ago and had only 10 starts this season. When you watch him work, who does he remind you of? Tim Lincecum, that's who — Lincecum when he was young and good and overpowering.

Before Saturday night, Gray's biggest claim to fame was pitching in the College World Series. Bob Melvin kept saying he trusted this game to Gray because of the College World Series.

Really?

The College World Series is not exactly the big leagues. Melvin said he started Gray in Game 2 because he wanted to give Gray the "comfortability" of pitching at home, comfortability being Melvin's word, and a very good word it is. Comfortability counted for plenty in this game.

It wasn't comfortable for anyone who played the game or watched it, every pitch meaning everything, every pitch and grounder and pop fly a desperate event that could change everything. Every inning except the last half inning ended with no runs. This game was all about the exquisite stress of postseason ball. And it is exquisite.

One moment in the top of the third showed so much about Gray. He brushed back Torii Hunter with a high inside fastball. The pitch went near Hunter's face but not that close. It's not like Hunter was in mortal danger, or even in danger of getting a wind burn. Plus Hunter leans over the plate daring a pitcher to conk him, and a leaner has to accept a certain amount of pitches that buzz his puss.

But Hunter didn't accept it. He stormed out of the batter's box as if Gray had disrespected his mother, said she wears army boots or something equally appalling. Hunter eyeballed Gray. He yelled something at Gray.

The game within the game was on. Hunter was trying to intimidate the kid, get inside his head, make him think about anything but the at-bat. This was pure gamesmanship from a veteran, the best kind of baseball gamesmanship. You wondered if Gray would start weeping or rush to Hunter, call him "sir," apologize and shine his shoes. He did none of that.

Afterward, Gray said of Hunter, "He's been one of my favorite players growing up, watching him play. I remember my first spring training facing him when he was with the Angels. He had a line drive up the middle and almost took my head off. He's a great guy. He is known as a really great guy and it got me fired up a little bit. It did. After that, I had a little extra adrenaline, I really did. I was able to still locate the ball though, so that was what it was."

For the record, Gray threw the next pitch 95 miles per hour near Hunter's coconut, although not as close as the previous pitch. Then he struck out Hunter, struck out the side.

Let it be known that Tigers manager Jim Leyland never belittled Gray or called him a mere rookie, or said he would crack — at least he never did any of that publicly. Leyland is old style. He adheres to the baseball code. He praises the other guys, never slams them. "He's obviously got a lot of ability and he looks very aggressive and shows no signs of any big-league intimidation in any of the outings we have watched (on film)," Leyland said before the game. "He gets after it pretty good."

He sure does.

And there's something else — and this is not Gray related. The Tigers took out Verlander to start the eighth inning. Although he was pitching a shutout, he had thrown 117 pitches and they didn't want his arm to fall off.

That meant one thing. The A's now were into the Tigers' bullpen. It's where they wanted to be, where they needed to be. The Tigers' bullpen is kind of iffy, kind of mediocre, mostly crummy. It is the soft underbelly of Detroit ball.

A guy named Drew Smyly promptly put runners on first and second with one out to start the eighth, but Al Alburquerque relieved Smyly. Alburquerque is such a great name. You think it's a made-up name, some character from Kerouac. But he's real. This Alburquerque fellow struck out two in a row and ended the threat, and the A's chances seemed to vanish.

But if at first you don't succeed and all that. The bottom of the ninth rolled around. The Tigers' bullpen didn't suddenly improve. The A's got to Alburquerque and sent him back to where he's really from — Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic instead of New Mexico. For a full report on the thrilling ending, read Phil Barber's brilliant game story.

So, think about this. If the A's had lost, they would have been one game from extinction and on their way to Detroit with Jarrod Parker starting Game 3. You don't want to know Parker's abysmal numbers against the Tigers.

Let's just say, if the A's had lost, the world would have become a hard place for them. But they evened the series, survived the great Verlander. After they won, the A's players rushed onto the field like they were shot from a cannon and celebrated.

And the world became a little easier for them, more sensible, filled with comfortability.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.