OAKLAND — Hours before the A's took the field Friday night, before the relentlessly thumping drumbeats, before the onslaught of towel-waving bleacher creatures and before the "Let's Go Oaklands," former outfielder Dave Henderson scanned the empty seats and dreamed of what would come.

"It's totally different here," Henderson said from the field at the O.Co Coliseum. "Because there's a constant noise, even when nothing is going on. And that creates energy. And when you're a player, energy is what you need when things aren't going well."

The Detroit Tigers were leading 3-0 in the seventh inning when this edition went to press. For the full story, go to www.mercurynews.com.

Henderson, who played in three World Series for the A's, returned Friday to christen Oakland's latest postseason voyage. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

When Henderson delivered a strike, the fans unleashed a mighty roar. Of course they did.

They were ready for this one, having had since Sept. 22, the A's most recent home game, to rest their vocal cords. And is if to show the world, or at least Commissioner Bud Selig, that this joint had more to offer than leaking sewage, they made enough noise to make up for lost time.

O.Co went loco.

They came wearing jerseys marked Cesepedes and Balfour and Donaldson (the new guard) and Eckersley and Fingers and Rudi (old). They came early enough to fill up the parking lots and came late in jam-packed trains like a BART out of hell.

They came wearing oversized glasses (in honor of spectacled second baseman Eric Sogard) and with bushy beards (a la right fielder Josh Reddick and others).

But they came. The announced crowd of 48,146 marked the largest crowd since the 53,974 that came for a Giants game on June 27, 2004.

"When you're on the verge of a playoff series like this, you start getting antsier and antsier as it goes along," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "And come yesterday, everybody was ready for this day to come."

On a 77 degree night, the stadium went tarpless. A's officials removed the covering from the third deck, as planned, to make room for the large postseason crowd.

"When you open up the tarps and get another 10,000-15,000 people in here, the volume just goes up tremendously," said Henderson, 55, who played for the A's from 1988-93. "You can feel it in deep center field, 300 feet away.

"There's passion here, and I think that it's the fact that we have trophies. We've been there, done that. We have that bravado that lets other teams know: 'We have some in the cabinet. We want more.' "

Sonny Gray, the A's preternaturally composed 23-year-old starting pitcher, spent his night trying to soak in the scene. Three years ago, as a student at Vanderbilt, Gray joined his buddies to go watch some pitcher named Justin Verlander.

"It seemed like he was the only guy people were talking about," Gray recalled Friday. "And I remember we were at some restaurant on the road and just watching him pitch and watching him throw 100 miles an hour in the ninth inning.

"We were just like, 'Wow, he's very impressive.' "

On Saturday, Gray will have a slightly better look. He will oppose Verlander in Game 2.

Verlander is a six-time All-Star and has won the Cy Young, MVP and rookie of the year awards. He has led the A.L. in strikeouts three times and beat the A's twice in the playoffs last season, including in an elimination game.

Gray has ... let's see ... 10 career major league starts. "The problem with Sonny Gray," Detroit Manager Jim Leyland said, "is that we don't know much about him, other than what we have seen on TV. And it looks pretty darn good."

The A's, of course, are accustomed to that story line: Established stars vs. nobodies. Big payroll vs. small payroll. Household names vs. household members.

Verlander, for one, isn't fooled.

"The A's are an extremely talented ballclub," the right-hander said. "They came in this year with a chip on their shoulder because — not necessarily inside the baseball world — but the media was speculating that they were probably a fluke.

"And for that reason, they went out there and showed that they are a playoff-caliber team and left no doubt about it."

The fans have a chip on their shoulders, too, and based on Friday night seemed to embrace their role as the rambunctious outsiders. Among the tailgaters was Adam Olson, a Walnut Creek resident, who has designed T-shirts saluting the eccentricities of each A's player. For famously foul-mouthed relief ace Grant Balfour, a Sydney native, Olson designed a logo featuring an "Aussie Swear Jar" -- 50 cents per profanity.

Balfour makes $4.5 million in base salary, which means he could afford 9 million swears. That sounds right about on the money.

Alas, the Major League Baseball Players Association was not amused and sent Olson's website, itsopeningday.com, a cease-and-desist letter regarding his player merchandise.

Olson toned it down Friday with a more generic look.

His new shirt said: "Oaktober."

Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.