The AL Division Series matchup between the A's and the Tigers is a very unlikely one, based on the facts that not only are the A's in the playoffs, but they're a higher seed than the Tigers, who were christened before the season as potentially the best offense in league history. Both teams didn't clinch playoff berths until the last week of the season, and go into this game as division champions.
When it comes to the rotations of each of these teams, the differences are stark. Detroit's starters strike out batters by the bucketload, Oakland's rely more on finesse. Detroit's starters are a veteran crew, while Oakland's are much younger, with three of the four being rookies. In terms of overall matchups, the Tigers have sizable advantages in this series. In game one (and potentially game five), Justin Verlander takes on Jarrod Parker. Game two will pit Doug Fister against Tommy Milone, and game three will see Anibal Sanchez take on Brett Anderson. Game four is the key matchup, with banged up Tigers strikeout artist Max Scherzer set to take on AJ Griffin, who has gone less then five innings and pitched poorly in three out of his last four starts. Another key matchup is the game two duel between Milone and Fister. Milone's home/road splits for the season are ghastly, and he had a bad start in Detroit two and a half weeks ago.
Game one between Parker and Verlander is crucial for the A's. If Verlander dominates them like he's dominated most teams this season, this series could be over very quickly with Milone's disadvantage with Fister looming in game two. The A's need to have Parker control the Tigers' excellent offense and keep them close against Verlander.
This is where the A's have a pretty solid advantage over the Tigers. During the last week of the season, Oakland's trio of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Grant Balfour obliterated teams in the final third of games. When you add in a guy like Evan Scribner than can eat multiple innings and a specialist like Pat Neshek (prayers with you, Pat), this bullpen is downright frightening.
Detroit's bullpen has highlights, but nowhere near the dominance as Oakland's pen has. Closer Jose Valverde has struggled this season after a perfect 2011, but veteran Octavio Dotel has been very good and Joaquin Benoit has been downright scary. The key in my mind is Al Albuquerque, who has missed a giant chunk of the season and has struggled at times with his command since returning.
You all know about the Tigers lineup, highlighted by the middle of the order duo of Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and $200 million man Prince Fielder. Delmon Young and Alex Avila have struggled to give them protection in the order all year, but Austin Jackson has done a fantastic job setting the table for the two Tigers sluggers. The key for the A's is obvious, and sounds a little too simple: don't let Cabrera and Fielder control the game when they come up. But it's true. If you make the rest of the Tigers lineup beat you, someone will need to step up for Detroit.
Oakland's lineup is unheralded for the mostpart, but they've actually hit 32 more homers as a team than the Tigers. Yoenis Cespedes is a legitimate stud in the heart of the order, and Josh Reddick is very boom or bust with the bat, though he's been coming up boom more than bust this year. The rest of the A's lineup around those two is made up of guys like Brandon Moss, Seth Smith, and Coco Crisp, who fly under the radar but continually produce. The A's don't really have a glaring hole in their order aside from infielders Josh Donaldson and Cliff Pennington, and there's no definitve player to shut down on the squad like there is with the Tigers.
Detroit's bench is…well, interesting. They don't really have a big masher, and instead of the more utility types of players like Avisail Garcia, Don Kelly, and Ramon Santiago, who don't really have a tendency for the big hit off of the bench. As for the A's, it comes down to one player: Jonny Gomes, who can feast on either of the two lefties in Detroit's bullpen. The A's also have guys like Chris Carter and backup catcher George Kottaras, more known for their bats than for their gloves. If the A's need a longbal late in the game, they won't have an issue finding a bench player to do that for them.
This is a tough series to call. The Tigers are clearly the better team on paper, but the Angels and Rangers were better teams on paper than the A's too, and neither of them are playing ball anymore. This entire series reminds me a lot of the Orioles-Rangers game from last night. If the A's can keep the games close and turn it over to the bullpen, they can bring home enough runs to win the game. Meanwhile for the Tigers, they need put runs on the board early, and their veteran starters can't get flustered by the high energy A's offense. It's going to be a fun series at the least to watch.