OAKLAND -- It was one of the classic champagne baths of all time, and Justin Verlander stood right in the middle of it on Thursday night.
Moments after the Tigers had closed down those feisty A's to win the American League Division Series in five games, they gathered around Verlander in the middle of their plastic-covered clubhouse at the O.co Coliseum and doused him from head to toe with bubbly.
"It was awesome and horrible at the same time because you can't see a thing," Verlander explained after he whiffed 11 in a 6-0 shutout. "Your eyes are burning, and all you want to do is look up and celebrate with your teammates. But all I could do is look down and shut my eyes. Having your teammates around you, dumping champagne on you like that, is a feeling I'll never forget, and something I'll take with me forever."
That bath was a matter of simple respect and recognition for a man who carried the Tigers on his shoulders into the AL Championship Series, beginning Saturday night against the winner of Friday night's ALDS finale between the Yankees and Orioles at Yankee Stadium. An MVP isn't named in the Division Series, but had there been one, Verlander was the clear choice.
He won Games 1 and 5, rallying the Tigers back from what could have been a crushing Game 4 loss to the A's, who scored three times in the ninth on Wednesday against closer Jose Valverde to win, 4-3. Verlander allowed a run on seven hits in the series, walking five and striking out 22, his ERA a microscopic 0.56.
When told that the 22 K's were a Division Series record, Verlander said simply: "Really? That's sweet!"
You complete me
Justin Verlander is just the fourth Tigers pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout in the postseason.
Verlander has thrown two no-hitters and is 5-3 in 10 postseason starts. His line on Thursday night included a walk and four hits, three of them singles. The A's never really threatened, moving only two runners as far as second base. Oakland managed a pair of baserunners in only one inning, the eighth. Verlander is the AL's reigning Cy Young Award winner and MVP. But one senses that, at 29, there are World Series rings and accolades still to come.
"When you throw like that in a big ballgame, that's what you expect from the premier pitchers," said an equally soaked Dave Dombrowski, the general manager and architect of the team. "He is one of those anyway, but you look at what he does on the field, you look at what he's done as far as last year with the MVP and the Cy Young, when he pitches like that in the postseason it takes him up a full notch. There are very few guys who do that in history. He's very special now and he has a chance to do even more."
Verlander established the tone of the series for the Tigers by whiffing 11 Oakland hitters in a 3-1, Game 1 victory at Comerica Park. This is the third time now in the past two postseasons he's recorded double-digit strikeouts. He first did so in a victory over the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS a year ago, a series the Tigers were also pressed to win in five games.
No other Tigers pitcher has recorded multiple double-digit strikeout games in the postseason. Verlander is the only Major Leaguer to hit double digits since Tim Lincecum whiffed 10 Rangers in Game 5 of the 2010 World Series, helping the Giants close out their first championship since 1954.
But Thursday night's performance was really a big deal.
"For me, personally, this has got to be right up there," Verlander said. "I think this is No. 1. The two no-hitters are obviously up there, but that's something a little bit different. This was a win or go home and my team needed me. I was able to go out there and have one of the better performances I've had. For me, I think this is No. 1, personally."
Verlander lately has been on one of his patented runs. He gave up two earned runs over 28 innings in his final four starts of the season and was named AL Pitcher of the Month for September. That played no small role in Detroit winning its second consecutive AL Central title. The Tigers tied the White Sox for first place with eight days to go and won the division by three games.
Against the A's, the Tigers blew a 2-0 ALDS lead. But Verlander put a halt to that skid. His personal streak now has extended to three earned runs in 44 innings over his last six starts, heading into the ALCS. That's an 0.61 ERA if you're counting. No wonder his teammates chanted Velrander's name on Wednesday night as the champagne flowed freely, drenching his road-gray uni.
"This is the way legends are made," said Alex Avila, who caught both of Verlander's ALDS starts. "He basically put us on his back and did an unbelievable job. I mean, he pitched a complete game. But literally, it was a complete game overall for him as far as his command, the stuff he had. I'm glad he's on our team."