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DET@OAK Gm5: Verlander, Gray to lock horns in Game 5

OAKLAND -- Play it again, Sonny and Justin.

Fittingly, an American League Division Series distinguished by brilliant pitching comes down to a rematch of one of the most compelling duels in recent postseason history.

Oakland's Sonny Gray, the kid with the golden arm, and Detroit's Justin Verlander, the decorated veteran, match power and precision components in Game 5 on Thursday night in O.co Coliseum at 8 p.m. ET on TBS.

The winner moves on to face the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series.

Verlander, the 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner and AL Most Valuable Player Award winner, blanked the A's across seven innings with 11 strikeouts in a Game 2 showdown with Gray that went to the A's, 1-0, on catcher Stephen Vogt's RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.

Gray, a 23-year-old Vanderbilt product with 11 starts on his Major League resume, matched Verlander in yielding just four hits across his eight innings, striking out nine.

Part of the wave of great young arms in the game, Gray was Oakland's choice over veteran Bartolo Colon, who worked Game 1. The Tigers won that game, 3-2, with three first-inning runs.

"It's not like Bartolo has done anything to warrant not pitching in this game," A's manager Bob Melvin said of his 40-year-old ace, an 18-game winner. "It's just that Sonny pitched so well."

The Tigers, having never faced him before, came away duly impressed with Gray's 94-96 mph fastball and knee-buckling hook.

"Sonny has one of the best curveballs I've seen in a while," said Torii Hunter, who expressed his distaste in the batter's box of one of Gray's up-and-in fastballs that sent him reeling in Game 2. Bad blood also boiled over in a Game 3 verbal spat between Victor Martinez and A's closer Grant Balfour.

The big question is whether Gray can replicate his magic against an offense now familiar with his delivery and the movement on his pitches.

"They also saw him two and three times around the lineup during that game," Melvin noted. "He's able to make adjustments as well, and he has very good stuff on top of it."

Tigers manager Jim Leyland isn't expecting his hitters to fall into a "comfort zone" against Gray, "but it makes you a little more comfortable, now that you know the action on the ball, the great breaking ball that he has."

The A's, 0-5 in Game 5 ALDS showdowns, are bidding to avenge their elimination loss to Verlander and Co. last October in the Coliseum. The Tigers prevailed, 6-0, with their ace going the distance in one of the signature performances of his career.

In three postseason starts against the A's the past two seasons, Verlander has yielded one run in 23 innings. That was a leadoff homer by Coco Crisp in Game 1 of the 2012 ALDS, won by the Tigers in Detroit.

"The hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball," Crisp said. "Verlander is a tough pitcher; their whole pitching staff is a great staff. He is who he is. We've got to go out and beat him.

"We're a one-through-nine lineup. We need everybody to chip in in a collective effort. If we swing at our pitches, I think we'll have a good chance to beat them."

Crisp is the hottest hitter in the series. With seven hits in the two games in Detroit, the A's center fielder is batting .500 with a .556 on-base percentage.

In contrast, Tigers leadoff man Austin Jackson is batting .133 with a .188 OBP, striking out 10 times in 15 at-bats. Detroit is hoping his big RBI single in the seventh inning of Game 4 will serve to lift Jackson out of his funk.

A major issue for the Tigers has been the absence of thunder from Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, who have not produced an extra-base hit in 31 combined at-bats. Fielder is hitting .267, Cabrera .250.

The 2012 Triple Crown winner and 2013 batting champion, Cabrera said he has grown "tired of questions every day" about groin and abdomen ailments draining his power.

After managing just six runs in the first 31 innings of the series, the Tigers busted out with eight runs in the final four innings in Game 4.

Jhonny Peralta, returning at the end of the regular season from his 50-game suspension, and Martinez unloaded the first two homers of the series by the Tigers.

Peralta and Martinez are hitting .375 in the series and have accounted for seven of the team's 12 RBIs. Peralta has five in just eight at-bats.

The A's, who launched four home runs in the two games in Detroit, were third in the Majors in homers (186) during the regular season, producing 10 more than the Tigers.

The A's have tasted some success in the regular season against Verlander, who is 5-4 in the Coliseum with a 2.38 ERA in 10 starts.

A's shortstop Jed Lowrie, hitless through three games, busted out in Game 4 with a homer, single and three RBIs.

"I think the strength of our offense all year has been to trust everybody up and down the lineup and not try to do too much," Lowrie said. "That's the easiest way to get to a guy like Verlander. ... Get guys on base and get him to throw those stress innings and pitches, where he's not able to cruise through innings."

Josh Donaldson (.176, no extra-base hits) has been quiet, but Yoenis Cespedes has been a force, batting .389 with a double, triple, homer and team-high four RBIs. Designated hitter Seth Smith is hitting .417.

It's Gray vs. Verlander in a fascinating finale that will extend one team's season and bring a numbing end to the other's.

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