Patient Tigers put away A's in Game 1
Detroit raps 11 hits en route to ALCS-opening victory
OAKLAND -- Work the count. Wear down the pitcher. Get guys on base, hit them along and get them in.
On most nights of the season, it's the "Moneyball" variation that the A's have ridden into this American League Championship Series. On Tuesday night, it became part of Tigerball. It's aggressive, yet patient, and it worked to perfection against Barry Zito in Game 1 to regain the home-field advantage they lost when they couldn't take the AL Central.
"Right now, [the offense is] right," hitting coach Don Slaught said after the 5-1 win, "and it's a perfect time to do it."
The Tigers have earned such a reputation for their aggressiveness at the plate that it has become a mystique. As Brandon Inge dissected it earlier this season, they've pounded pitchers who throw strikes and struggle against guys who nibble at the zone. Zito falls into the latter category, and he owns a history of success against the Tigers to show for it.
They've gone up against him many times before with a plan for patience, but this time they executed. If instructions weren't enough, Slaught laid out the numbers and the video for them -- more than half of his fastballs out of the strike zone, including his Division Series domination of the Twins last week.
"We know that he's going to throw the fastball," Slaught said. "If we swing at the ones that are balls, we're not going to hit him. If we make him get it on the plate, we've got a shot."
Even when the Tigers weren't hitting him early, they knew they had their chance.
Zito looked primed for his unusual dominance against Detroit, retiring the first eight Tigers in order. However, hitters were trying to work him. Five of the first seven hitters took first-pitch balls against him, and six of them reached at least two-ball counts, with a full-count battle against Craig Monroe.
"We watched some film on him," Monroe said, "and it looked like everybody was chasing. We tried to make sure that he made some pitches in the zone and give ourselves a chance. Because when that curveball's working with the high fastball, he's at his best. Today, we were able to lay off the high curveball and the fastball, make him get some pitches in the zone and have good swings."
The first good swing with a result came soon thereafter, and from a guy Zito normally owns. Brandon Inge, 3-for-24 lifetime against him, worked his way into a 2-1 count before turning on a high, inside fastball to pull it down the left-field line and inside the foul pole.
"Kind of the ironic thing was I was trying to look out over the plate," Inge said. "I guess my hands didn't quite cooperate with my mind."
Zito had retired eight straight until Inge, but he retired just three of final 13 batters afterwards. He fell behind on 2-0 counts to the next three batters, all of which made him pay in some fashion.
Curtis Granderson doubled before back-to-back full-count walks to Placido Polanco and Sean Casey loaded the bases for Magglio Ordonez, whose sharp ground ball forced a sliding stop from Eric Chavez. The Gold Glove third baseman stopped the ball, but couldn't field it cleanly enough for a throw, bringing in a second run.
"He did start throwing some more fastballs for strikes," Slaught said, "and we started hitting them."
Once Ivan Rodriguez homered leading off the fourth inning, the Tigers were rolling again. Zito walked Monroe and fell behind again on Inge, who drilled a 2-0 pitch high off the wall in left-center field for an RBI double. Polanco's RBI single two batters later completed the damage.
Zito left with five runs on seven hits allowed over 3 2/3 innings. It was by far the shortest of his seven career postseason outings, and his quickest exit against the Tigers compared to their 14 career regular-season meetings. Sixty-one of his 92 pitches came in the third and fourth innings.
"I know they're an aggressive team," Zito said. "I need to take advantage of their aggression and come after them, make them swing at bad pitches early, and the pitches I think were just too far out of the strike zone for them to chase early on."
The A's had plenty of chances to answer back against Robertson, but a combination of clutch pitches and a record-tying double play total allowed him to avenge both his Division Series defeat a week ago in Yankee Stadium and his two losses in as many career outings at McAfee Coliseum.
Robertson turned in five scoreless innings despite six hits and three walks allowed. Once Carlos Guillen started an inning-ending double play in the seventh, the Tigers tied a postseason record with four ground-ball twin-killings, most since the San Francisco Giants turned that many in 1987. Guillen played a role in three of them at shortstop, then the last at first base, shifting position after Casey injured his left calf at the plate in the sixth.
"Our game is as a team," Rodriguez said. "Hitting, pitching, defense, if we all do that together, we're going to end up with a good year."
It was as if the Tigers hitters came out in disguise, but Slaught said it wasn't a one-night anomaly. He has seen the mindset in place ever since the opener against the Yankees, when they made Chien-Ming Wang use up 93 pitches over 6 2/3 innings.
"To be honest with you," manager Jim Leyland said, "I think playing the Yankees kind of helped us with our offensive approach, because we mentioned something about how patient the Yankees were and how they made the pitcher work and everything. And I think by talking about that so much, I think some of our guys picked up on it."
It's not Yankees-style patience, and it's certainly not Moneyball. Where the Tigers' style falls is taking pitches in hopes the next pitch is something to hit.
"You don't want them going up there trying to work," Slaught said. "I don't want them careful or making sure. If it starts in the window, swing at it. If it starts out of the window, take it."
Game 1 was beauty in simplicity.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.