Verlander sends Tigers to second straight ALCS

Verlander sends Tigers to second straight ALCS

Verlander sends Tigers to second straight ALCS
OAKLAND -- The A's seemingly had destiny on their side. The Tigers had Justin Verlander on theirs.

Destiny didn't stand a chance.

For a pitcher with two no-hitters, an All-Star Game start and a World Series appearance as a rookie, this was Verlander's finest night. He took Thursday night's deciding American League Division Series Game 5 against an A's team coming off back-to-back wins, including a ninth-inning comeback, with a thunderous sellout crowd behind it, and shut it all down in a complete-game four-hitter with 11 strikeouts.

By the time the Tigers batted around in a four-run seventh inning, turning a pitching duel into a runaway 6-0 win, they had sapped the magic out of an A's run that a night ago seemingly had them headed to a Division Series comeback.

Instead, the Tigers are heading to their second straight AL Championship Series, where they'll await the winner of Friday's Game 5 between the Yankees and Orioles.

"After yesterday's loss, I'm sure not everybody in Detroit thought we were going to win today," catcher Alex Avila said. "But we had the best pitcher in the game going, and I liked our chances."

When manager Jim Leyland talked time and again over the last six years about momentum being as good as the next game's pitcher, this is what he meant. Even he might not have imagined this, the first postseason shutout by an AL pitcher in a winner-take-all game since Jack Morris of the 1991 World Series.

"He had that look in his eyes today," Leyland said. "He was determined. He had a complete-game look in his eye. And we were thankful to get that."

Tigers fans have been thankful for years to have Verlander on their side, but maybe never as much as this night.

"I think this is number one," Verlander said. "The two no-hitters are obviously up there, but that's something a little bit different. This is win or go home. My team needs me. And I was able to go out there and have one of the better performances I've had."

Verlander's outings have grown big enough in Detroit that he draws cheers whenever he emerges from the dugout a half-hour or so before a game to start warming up in the bullpen. As soon as he emerged from the visitors' dugout Thursday night, the boos rained down from the fans that had settled in at the Coliseum -- not just along the first-base side, but all over.

Once he took the mound for the bottom of the first inning, the noise enveloped him. That was pretty much all the noise the A's would make against him on the evening.

It wasn't a particular pitch that made this outing so great for him. His hardest fastball was 98 mph, and he only did it once or twice. The buckling curve he can use so well for strikeouts wasn't nearly as devastating as it has been on some nights.

This was a performance where the total package was greater than any one highlight pitch. It still left the unmistakable feeling that Verlander, whose reign as AL MVP will soon end, remains the toughest pitcher in the game. He now has a big-game gem to prove it.

"When Verlander gets on a roll like he was today, especially once he gets into his rhythm, you get into the middle innings and he's rolling along pretty good, it's tough to stop him," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "It's like a locomotive going at a high speed. He was tough to deal with."

A two-out, first-inning double from Yoenis Cespedes gave Oakland its only runner in scoring position through the first seven innings. Not until Josh Donaldson's single in the eighth did the A's put a leadoff man on base.

In between was a mix of mid-90 fastballs, upper-80s changeups, awkward swings and mishit balls. The foul tips that ran up Verlander's pitch count against the A's in September and again in Game 1 were tougher to find.

"They tried to bring up his pitch count a little bit today," Avila said. "It's just that with his command, at times when they were taking, he was able to throw strikes, and when we thought they were going to be a little more aggressive, we were able to go out the zone a little bit. It was just a great combination of his stuff and command."

By the time Verlander threw his 50th pitch, he had an out in the fourth. His first baseman, meanwhile, had a feeling they had this game.

"I'd say maybe the fourth inning, I thought, 'All right. He hasn't thrown 100 yet but he's still got it,'" Prince Fielder said, "Whenever he doesn't have to throw as hard and they still can't touch it, it's all right. We have a good shot."

He had thrown 88 pitches through six innings, ended the seventh with called-third strikes on Seth Smith and Josh Reddick, yet still stood in double digits. He threw his 100th pitch to Donaldson leading off the eighth before his single gave the A's one more rally.

Cliff Pennington's two-out single in the eighth put two men on against Verlander and brought up Coco Crisp, whose at-bats had been the toughest on Tigers pitchers all series. After a first-pitch ball, however, Verlander used a 95-mph fastball to jam Crisp into an inning-ending groundout to second.

No pitcher has struck out more batters in a winner-take-all postseason game. Verlander's performance tied him with Cliff Lee, who struck out 11 Tampa Bay Rays over a complete-game victory for the Rangers in Game 5 of the 2010 AL Division Series.

The Tigers manufactured a lead for Verlander after Austin Jackson doubled in Omar Infante in the third and scored on a wild pitch. Singles from Jhonny Peralta and Infante chased A's starter Jarrod Parker in the seventh, and the Tigers put five consecutive baserunners on against Oakland's previously formidable bullpen, including a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch for Miguel Cabrera and Fielder's bloop single.

"When you're facing that kind of pitching, you just try to get the runs in whenever you can," Fielder said. "Today, they were facing our guy as well. We knew if we got him a couple, we had a good shot. I'm just glad we were able to come away with it."

Infante, who quietly had one of the best series by a Tigers position player, and Jackson both had two hits and two runs scored, giving the Tigers a spark on a night when they stole three bases to tie a postseason record.

But this night was all about Verlander. When he stepped into the clubhouse afterwards, he was doused with champagne as his teammates chanted, "Cy Young!"

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.