A’s, Tigers prepare for playoff rematch year later

Josh Donaldson mimics Miguel Cabrera whenever he can, and he has
no problem copping to it.

Donaldson spent a couple of days each week over the offseason
studying tape of Detroit’s star in the batter’s box, trying to pick
up on anything he could apply to his own hitting for Oakland.

Indeed, Donaldson learned a thing or two that worked on the way
to a breakout season: .301 batting average, 24 home runs, 93 RBIs
in 158 games for the AL West champion Athletics.

”JD’s the MVP of our team and Miguel Cabrera is the MVP of
baseball,” A’s first baseman Brandon Moss said.

These two talented third basemen will face off in the playoffs
for the second straight October starting with Game 1 of the AL
division series Friday night.

One is a household name, 2012 Triple Crown winner and widely
considered the best hitter in baseball. The other is more anonymous
up-and-comer whose spectacular September in his first full major
league season earned him AL player of the month honors.

Cabrera is making $21 million this season, Donaldson a mere
$492,500.

”I’ve watched his videos a lot as far as a hitter,” Donaldson
said. ”He’s a highly talented hitter, and I really appreciate the
way he goes about hitting and I try to learn from him at what he’s
doing. I feel he’s one of the best hitters in the game that goes to
right field, and what’s helped me be able to take it to the next
level this year is the ability to be able to hit it to right field.
Watching him over the course of time has definitely helped
me.”

Cabrera was pleased to hear that Donaldson had studied his
tape.

”Oh, that’s great. That’s awesome,” Cabrera said. ”He’s a
great player. He’s one of the reasons the Oakland A’s are in the
playoffs. He brings a lot of energy to their ballclub. I think
you’ll see he can change the game with his bat but his glove,
too.”

And to think Donaldson had prepared to play catcher until he was
called upon to fill in at third when Scott Sizemore went down with
a season-ending knee injury at the start of spring training
2012.

Aside from much focus at third base, the rematch of last fall’s
first-round series takes on a far different look this time around.
Cabrera, Prince Fielder and the Tigers have something to prove
after being swept by San Francisco in last year’s World Series,
while the A’s were hardly a surprise division champion this time
and know how close they were to beating the Tigers and reaching the
ALCS.

Max Scherzer (21-3) gets the ball opposite Oakland 18-game
winner Bartolo Colon for the opener. Tigers manager Jim Leyland is
going with Justin Verlander in Saturday’s Game 2 against rookie
Sonny Gray.

Verlander beat the A’s in Games 1 and 5 last year.

That’s still plenty fresh for both sides, but so is the A’s late
August visit to Comerica Park in which they took three of four on
Detroit’s home field.

The A’s didn’t need a last-second rally this year like their
improbable late-September 2012 push in which they stunned Texas on
the final day – and became the first team in major league history
to win a division or pennant after trailing by five games with less
than 10 to play.

”It’s definitely a little more pressure when you’re out in
front than when you’re playing from behind – when you’re behind,
you’re still the underdog,” A’s center fielder Coco Crisp said
Thursday. ”To be honest, I think we’re still the underdog when
we’re in front.”

Cabrera’s big bat will decide plenty. He hit .348 with 44 home
runs and 137 RBIs but often has played through pain because of a
variety of injuries – a troublesome back, a sore left hip, a lower
abdominal strain – for a Tigers team coming off its third straight
AL Central crown.

”I wish tomorrow at game time I’m 100 percent. I feel much
better the last couple days,” Cabrera said of his groin problem.
”I don’t think it’s going to be an issue for the playoffs.
Anything can happen. I’m ready to give everything on the
field.”

Leyland has seen improvement in Cabrera’s leg strength.

”He’s playable. He’s not 100 percent,” Leyland said. ”He’s
handicapped a little bit, but the last few days have been
better.”

Donaldson will take note of Cabrera, even if not at fully
healthy.

”Any time I can watch him hit, if I’m watching a game, I like
to watch and see what he’s doing,” Donaldson said. ”That’s what I
do in the offseason.”

Still, the A’s expect Cabrera to bring his best in October when
the stakes are so much higher.

The A’s have their own injury concerns, with left fielder Yoenis
Cespedes hoping to play the outfield Friday.

Manager Bob Melvin said Cespedes threw Thursday to test his sore
right shoulder and ”there’s a good chance you’ll see him in left
field tomorrow,” and not be relegated to designated hitter.

Leyland considered Oakland’s home field one of the most
difficult last year as raucous, sellout Coliseum crowds packed the
place for the team’s first playoffs in six years.

And, now, tarps in the third deck have been removed to bring
capacity from 35,067 to 48,146 in a dual-sport facility that has
featured sewage spills in the clubhouses and dugouts this year.

”I’ve heard the plumbing here isn’t quite up to standards,”
Scherzer quipped. ”I’m hearing the birds chirp on that.”

Kind of fitting for the blue-collar, low-budget franchise.

”It’s a little more rugged,” Crisp said. ”It does have its
own personality.”