OAKLAND -- In the end, as is the case with many personnel decisions the A's make, youth has won out.
Oakland will start 23-year-old rookie Sonny Gray at the Coliseum on Thursday night in Game 5 of the American League Division Series against Detroit's Justin Verlander, instead of 16-year major league veteran and season-long ace Bartolo Colon.
The A's were overwhelmed by what they saw from Gray in Game 2, when he threw eight shutout innings and outlasted Verlander in a game the A's won 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth. Manager Bob Melvin said there were a number of variables in choosing Gray over Colon, but the deciding factor was Gray's electric last start.
"We have a lot of smart people in our front office and baseball operations and the short of it is, it came down to Sonny's last game that he pitched in similar conditions in our ballpark," Melvin said. "So that's the route we're going to go."
The A's not only liked the bite on Gray's pitches but also the composure he demonstrated against the defending A.L. champions and their longtime ace. Gray allowed just four singles in eight innings, walked two and struck out nine.
"He's scared of nothing," Melvin said. "He right away established what he wanted to do in that game. He's pitched in some big games, and when you talk about experience in these types of games, he really does have this type of experience pitching just five days ago."
Melvin said Gray was excited when he told him he'd be starting the deciding game of the series.
"He had the same type of look he had when we told him he was going to pitch the second game of the series," the manager said. "He's a confident guy and he had a smile on his face, and you could see his mind starting to do its preparation right then and there."
Melvin also had to break the news to the 40-year-old Colon, who gave up three first-inning runs in Game 1 but followed up with five shutout innings. He did allow 10 hits, however, and his history against the Tigers isn't good. He hasn't won a game against Detroit in 10 years (0-8 in 14 starts and one relief appearance, counting his Game 1 loss).
But the manager maintained Colon took the news well despite being the unquestioned leader of the starting staff, going 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA.
"First of all, imagine how difficult it was for me," Melvin said. "But he made it easy on me. He looked at me and said, 'OK, I just want to win.' He's a man of few words as it is, but it made the conversation difficult on me because he could have had a gripe, and I would not have been surprised if he did."
Even if Gray matches his effort in Game 2, beating Verlander will be no easy chore. The right-hander, who pitched a shutout against Oakland in last year's Game 5 of the ALDS, appears to have regained something close to his top form. He pitched seven shutout innings in the Tigers' loss in Game 2 and has a string of 19 consecutive scoreless innings dating to his last two starts in the regular season. He has walked four and struck out 33 over that stretch.
Gray, on the other hand, has been dominant at home and particularly lethal under the lights. His ERA at the Coliseum is 1.84, and in night games it's 1.41, and 1.21 in Oakland.
With those kinds of numbers in mind on top of his Game 2 performance, manager Jim Leyland said the Tigers were "suspicious" they would see Gray in Game 5. He doesn't know what his hitters will gain from having faced him once, however.
"I'm not really sure we liked what we saw," Leyland said. "It was pretty good. But at least we have seen him now. It does make some difference. With the stuff he was featuring, it certainly does not mean we're going to be in a comfort zone. But it makes you a little more comfortable, now that you know the action on the ball, the great breaking ball that he has."
While Melvin denied the A's were planning ahead, pitching Gray in this home game would allow him to start Game 3 or 4 of the A.L. Championship Series at home against Boston, while Colon, who's more comfortable pitching on the road, could start Game 1 at Fenway Park if Oakland wins Thursday.
"This is a win"'or"'go"'home game and we're trying to do the best we can," Melvin said. "If we feel like there is an incremental edge one over the other, we feel like that's what we have to do, because it is win or go home."
Melvin said anything is possible in Game 5, however, if Gray runs into trouble early. It's possible, although unlikely, that Colon could be used in relief.
"We're awfully confident in what (Gray) can do, but in these type of scenarios, you always have that 'all hands on deck' mentality," he said. "And if something goes awry early on, you try to combat it. I don't think it's any different no matter who is starting, not just Sonny Gray."
Melvin added he doesn't anticipate making any changes to his starting lineup for Game 5 other than possibly inserting Alberto Callaspo at second base in place of Eric Sogard, who has started the first four games and does not have a hit (0 for 9 with a walk).