OAKLAND — Stephen Vogt triumphantly raised his right arm as he took off for first and did it again with a celebratory whipped cream pie covering his face. Then, once more for the cheering crowd as he left the field following another improbable Oakland walkoff win.
No doubt Vogt will cherish that moment. Thanks to him and fellow rookie Sonny Gray, the Athletics headed to Detroit tied with the Tigers at one win apiece in their best-of-five AL division series after Vogt’s winning hit in a 1-0 victory Saturday night.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” a tired Vogt said Sunday in Detroit following an overnight flight. “Haven’t really processed what happened last night. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been a crazy, crazy few hours, I suppose.”
Make that a crazy six months.
This spring, the catcher sat for six days in Durham, N.C., wondering about his baseball future. He didn’t make the Rays’ opening-day roster and figured to start the season there at Triple-A.
A pennant race, let alone playoffs, were never even a thought.
“Just sitting and waiting,” Vogt recalled.
Fast forward to October, and he’s a playoff star.
Vogt left the Tampa Bay organization for the Bay Area on April 5, traded back home to his native California, only a couple of hours from where he grew up and still lives in Visalia.
“Going into this season, I told myself I was obviously going to be with Tampa and battling for playing time up there and in Durham, playing my three positions, moving around and hopefully hit well enough to get a call up,” Vogt said.
Then, there he was Saturday night in a thrilling at-bat against one of baseball’s best pitchers.
After striking out twice against Justin Verlander, Vogt fouled off seven pitches — including the initial five — in a 10-pitch at-bat that ended the seventh. His next time up, he lined a bases-loaded single into left-center that won the game.
“The one in the ninth, you come up bases loaded, nobody out, and that’s what you dream of. Look for something out over the plate, stay in the middle of the field, just fortunate to come through,” Vogt said.
Manager Bob Melvin stuck with Vogt in that pressure situation. A left-handed hitter, Vogt is getting regular playing time against right-handed starters.
“Even though he had strikeouts, we ultimately had faith in him, and he came through for us,” Melvin said.
For Vogt, just getting regular opportunities has been important.
A minor league journeyman who turns 29 next month, Vogt needed 33 at-bats to finally get his first major league hit, a home run against St. Louis’ Joe Kelly on June 28.
“I spent a year-and-a-half of my life waiting for a hit,” Vogt said. “It wasn’t every day. It’s been fun this second go around up here being able to relax and just play the way I know how to play. It shows that I’m more relaxed. I think a lot of that has to do with getting to play a lot but also this team just adopting me.”
That’s been no problem for the easy-going A’s.
Vogt keeps delivering with his bat, his job behind the plate, and his arm. On Saturday, he made a perfect throw to second to retire Jose Iglesias for an inning-ending double play.
“First career postseason, hits a walkoff for the first win of the playoff series,” said right fielder Josh Reddick, responsible for the whipped cream pie. “He’s had some great at-bats … but to get that first one out of the way in a walkoff fashion, it says something. This’ll be a great confidence booster for him.”
After a stint back in Triple-A in early July, Vogt re-joined the A’s for good on July 25.
“The dude can run for a catcher. I love it,” shortstop Eric Sogard said.
The entire playoff process has all been a little bit surreal.
“Oh, 100 percent, and part of it is you’ve never been here before, you don’t know what to expect,” Vogt said last week. “To be getting ready to play in the postseason is a crazy feeling, but especially for me coming from not what was going to happen six months ago let alone four months ago.”
He’s still relatively anonymous; Vogt doesn’t even have a picture in the A’s postseason media guide.
Not that he would care — he spoke more of Gray’s gem Saturday night and how the 23-year-old rookie calmly matched Verlander.
Vogt caught Gray at Triple-Sacramento for most of the season.
“It was awesome for him to be in that moment, because you just knew he was going to do something and get the job done,” Gray said.
Vogt’s opportunity came after John Jaso sustained a season-ending concussion when he took a ball off his mask July 24 at Houston.
Melvin has enough confidence in Vogt to carry three catchers on the playoff roster, along with Kurt Suzuki and Derek Norris.
“At this point it really feels like he’s been here quite a while with us because he’s done such a good job with the pitching staff and has acclimated very quickly,” Melvin said. “He studies it very hard, he’s very prepared for each and every game, and he’s given us not only contributions defensively but offensively at times, too. So he was a really nice pickup for us.”