For much of the season, Stephen Vogt caught Sonny Gray with Triple-A Sacramento. Neither could have pictured pairing up on such a sensational playoff moment for the Athletics when they were 90 miles away in California’s capital.
One a heralded rookie and the other a relative unknown pushing 29, they provided everything Oakland needed in a 1-0 victory Saturday night that tied its AL division series with the Detroit Tigers at one game apiece.
Vogt hit a bases-loaded single in the ninth inning after Gray matched zeros with Justin Verlander in a dazzling postseason debut.
"Knowing that we had worked together for so many innings throughout the year, we were talking before the game: `Hey, it’s just like this lineup is similar to a lineup in Triple-A,’" Vogt said.
Well, not really. The Tigers feature 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and $214 million slugger Prince Fielder.
Gray handled them all with the poise of a seasoned ace.
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, but it was Gray and Vogt who took celebratory whipped cream pies to the face.
Game 3 is Monday afternoon in Detroit. 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.
"I knew there was going to be a lot of adrenaline and how I was able to harness that adrenaline was going to be a big factor in the game," Gray said. "It was awesome because I was still able to locate my pitches without being too shaky."
This marked the first game in postseason history in which both starters had nine strikeouts and no runs allowed.
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.
The right-hander ran his postseason scoreless streak against the A’s to 22 innings, unfazed by a rowdy sellout crowd of 48,292 on its feet and swirling yellow towels all night.
Or, by Gray’s impressive display.
At the start of Verlander’s remarkable 2011 season, Gray was finishing up at Vanderbilt before becoming the 18th overall draft pick.
"Obviously, he has a lot of angst and nerves, biggest game of his career," Verlander said. "Sonny did one heck of a job."
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.
"The at-bat with Verlander, he kept coming at me with everything he’s got," Vogt said. "Obviously I didn’t come through, ended up with a punchout. I felt pretty good about that at-bat. … You come up with bases loaded in the ninth, that’s what you dream of."
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.
With a pretty curveball and a fastball firing up to 97 mph, Verlander looked every bit the ace after an up-and-down year in which he managed only one win over his final 10 regular-season starts.
"Verlander was absolutely terrific," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "This is postseason pitching. That’s what you saw tonight at its absolute best."
Gray could have been rattled when Torii Hunter pointed at him after the rookie threw high and inside 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 Cabrera to strike out the side in order.
A’s manager Bob Melvin was thrilled to see Vogt — one of three catchers on the roster — do a little bit of everything.
"That’s why we have three here right now. If I could have 10, I’d have 10," he said.
NOTES: Jackson, the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, finished with four of Detroit’s nine strikeouts. … 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.