Performer of the Game: Tigers ace Verlander

Performer of the Game: Tigers ace Verlander

Performer of the Game: Tigers ace Verlander
DETROIT -- As Justin Verlander delivered his first warm-up tosses on Thursday, it was still a brilliant autumn afternoon in the Motor City, with the shadows of Comerica Park's roof just beginning to creep toward home plate.

No matter what, he was going to be out there for a while. And by nightfall, Verlander's gritty 133-pitch effort had extended the Tigers' season, logging the victory in a 7-5 win over the Rangers in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.

"This is obviously something you think about as a kid," Verlander said. "But when you're doing it, you can't allow yourself to think about it any differently than a normal start.

"Obviously I knew the scenario and knew that's a big situation. But you can't let yourself think, 'Oh, man, if we lose, we go home.'"

With Verlander's 7 1/3-inning, eight-strikeout performance in the books, Detroit's dream of hosting a World Series game this month remains alive.

Verlander's command may not have been precise as in many of his 24 victories this year, but he did what aces do. Snapping up a four-run sixth inning when all the breaks went Detroit's way, Verlander carried it almost all the way home.

"That's one of the best pitchers in the game right now," said Miguel Cabrera. "He dominated the whole year. He knows how to pitch in that situation. That's Justin Verlander."

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Touched for a first-inning sacrifice fly, Verlander briefly held a one-run lead in the fifth after Alex Avila and Delmon Young backed him with a pair of solo homers, only to see Josh Hamilton turn around a 99-mph fastball for a run-scoring single.

With runners at first and third, Verlander amped up his game. He unloaded three straight triple-digit fastballs to Michael Young, mixing in a 92-mph changeup -- yes, a changeup -- and then snapped off a hellacious curveball for a called third strike.

"When he needed to, he threw hard. And then when he figured he needed quick outs, he backed it off," said Avila, Verlander's batterymate.

In that fifth, Adrian Beltre had Verlander's timing a little better, hooking a 102-mph heater near the right-field foul pole, missing a three-run homer by just a matter of feet.

"I looked up and saw it was 102," Verlander said. "I said, 'Thank God it wasn't 101 or it would be a home run.'"

Beltre would get good wood on a Verlander curve, but drove it to Comerica's forgiving center field, where Austin Jackson flagged it securely. But it was Verlander's 34th pitch of the inning, bringing him to 96 total pitches.

"The fifth inning was a disaster for us from the pitch count standpoint," manager Jim Leyland said. "I was concerned. I wanted 125."

The bell seemed as though it might toll for Verlander's magical season in the sixth, issuing a four-pitch walk to No. 9 hitter Mitch Moreland to load the bases.

"We had him right there in the sixth," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

But Ian Kinsler swung at the first pitch, grounded to third baseman Brandon Inge for an inning-ending double play, and Comerica again erupted.

"Fastball down and in, broken-bat roller ground ball to Brandon," Verlander said. "Basically, exactly how I would have drawn it up. Couldn't have worked out any better."

Detroit's four-run sixth provided the lead, and already at 123 pitches, Verlander was just getting started. He retired the side in order in the seventh and notched the first out of the eighth before Mike Napoli singled.

The Rangers said there was no point in keeping an eye on Verlander's creeping pitch count.

"We knew he wasn't coming out," Young said. "In the postseason, you never know when you're getting another start. We knew he was going to empty the tank, and that's exactly what he did."

Chugging to the finish line, Verlander tried to get cute with pitch No. 133, which produced a smirk as Nelson Cruz belted it off the left-field foul pole, cutting Detroit's lead to three runs.

Verlander said that he guessed Cruz might have been sitting on a 0-2 curveball, so he tried to sneak a 100-mph fastball by him. Oops.

"In the air, it's, 'Please go foul, please go foul. I'm such an idiot, please go foul,'" Verlander said. "It didn't. That's why you get the little smirk."

That was enough for Leyland, who came out to retrieve the ball. Verlander doffed his cap to a roaring, towel-waving crowd as he completed his slow walk to the third-base dugout, maintaining his cool demeanor.

Later, in the interview room at Comerica, Leyland would promise that Verlander's work for the ALCS is done and said that he had been willing to let his ace run as high as 135 pitches.

Told of that, Verlander cracked, "Hey, where are my extra two pitches?"

If it was the final act of a season that will almost certainly end with Verlander hoisting the AL Cy Young Award, it was an inspired treat. But Verlander is banking that he'll have at least one more encore performance coming up.

"I'll be ready to go next time, whether that's Game 7 out of the bullpen or Game 1 of the World Series," Verlander said. "Hopefully it's Game 1 of the World Series, but whenever skip needs me, I'm ready."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.