The expression “catching lightning in a bottle” is used to describe rare, seemingly impossible accomplishments. In sports, it surfaces when underdogs overcome insurmountable odds to slay Goliath.
The phrase is getting play this week in chatter about Sonny Gray’s spellbinding performance against Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. But they also say that it’s impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice, so the A’s can’t depend on eight shutout innings from their rookie pitcher if they expect to advance to the American League Championship Series.
The Gray vs. Bartolo Colon decision is great fodder for debate, but realistically, the A’s couldn’t make a bad choice here. Ultimately, if they’re going to beat the Tigers, they’ll need to find a way to finally solve Verlander.
But this time, the 2011 American MVP will be taking the mound at O.co Coliseum with two scoreless-innings streaks stuffed in his back pocket.
The A’s haven’t crossed the plate with Verlander on the mound in postseason competition since Coco Crisp led off Game 1 of last year’s ALDS with a home run.
Verlander has pitched 22 straight scoreless innings against the A’s in the playoffs, including his complete game shutout in Game 5 of last year’s series, and he’s fanned 33 batters over that stretch.
But this is a new season and Verlander’s calibration is a little off, right?
While the lanky right-hander’s win-loss record (13-12) was somewhat un-Verlandian this year, his 3.46 ERA is certainly respectable and he finished the regular season with a streak of 13 scoreless innings. He added seven more shutout innings in his showdown with Gray on Saturday, so he’s also carrying a 20-scoreless-innings streak into tonight’s start. The A’s should expect him to bring his best stuff to the hill.
Streaks aside, Verlander is just the type of guy you want on the hill for a winner-take-all Game 5. He calls to mind another Tigers ace, Jack Morris, who also seemed to pitch with a little extra mustard on the ball as soon as the leaves started changing colors in October.
Morris posted a 3.60 ERA in 1984 before going 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA en route to a World Series championship. He won another title in 1991 with the Minnesota Twins, going 4-0 with 2.25 ERA after throwing 10 shutout innings in Game 7 of the World Series.
But like Morris, Verlander is fallible. If you’re not convinced, re-watch his duel with Barry Zito in Game 1 of last year’s World Series. While the Giants may have caught lightning in a bottle (twice) with Zito last October, he picked up the indelible win in the World Series because the bats managed to tag Verlander for five earned runs.
Pablo Sandoval is still property of the Giants until next winter, though, so the guys in the A’s clubhouse will need to step up and find a way to reverse their fortunes against Verlander to win only their second Division Series-clinching game in the past 13 tries.
Catching lightning in a bottle twice might be impossible, but this A’s team isn’t shy about scoring a few runs when everything’s on the line.
Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.