Verlander's gem books Tigers' return trip to ALCS
Righty gives club eight scoreless, wins Game 5 for second straight year
OAKLAND -- In case there was any doubt left, Justin Verlander is back.
So, too, are the Tigers, back in the American League Championship Series.
By the time Verlander was done Thursday night in Game 5 of the AL Division Series, he had disposed of the A's and was pitching against history. And even that obstacle looked wobbly for a while.
"As he started to get in a groove, I'd look out there and start to put a sign down, and it seemed that he was by himself out there," catcher Alex Avila said after the 3-0 shutout. "The crowd, the noise, the situation, it wasn't really affecting him. He just looked like he was in a zone and that he was the only one out there."
There was a lot more to it, from Miguel Cabrera's first home run since Sept. 17 -- a two-run shot in the fourth -- to Joaquin Benoit's hair-raising save to strand the potential tying run at the plate and send the Tigers into celebration. In the end, however, it came down to Verlander and Oakland again, just as it did in Game 5 of last year's ALDS nearly a year ago to the day.
The Tigers advanced to their third consecutive ALCS, this time against the Red Sox, opening at Fenway Park on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, FOX). The A's, meanwhile, go home wondering what they have to do to get past Verlander. They're running out of ideas.
The sellout crowd of 46,959 at O.co Coliseum showered him with boos from the moment he took the field for warmups. They carried cardboard cutout photos of supermodel Kate Upton to try to taunt him during the game. A's hitters, meanwhile, tried to work the count and wait for their pitch. They stepped in and out of the box to try to disrupt his rhythm. Nothing seemed to work.
"He was locked in. I could tell," manager Jim Leyland said. "He had that look on his face."
This was Verlander at work. Compared with the emotion he showed here in Game 2 during his duel with Sonny Gray, pumping his fist after the final out to end the eighth inning, he had a businesslike approach. He marched up the dugout tunnel after each inning, came back out around the same time for the next, and sent down A's hitters in between.
"The emotional level was the same," Verlander explained, "but it was more businesslike, because we got a lead early. So it was a level of focus saying, 'I can't allow them to score.' As soon as the last out was made in the inning, it was like, 'OK, refocus, go to the next inning.'"
Verlander retired the first 16 batters he faced without anything more than ordinary effort from his defense. For five innings, the closest the A's came to a hit was a pop fly from Coco Crisp that sent Don Kelly to his knees to catch it against the backdrop of the late-afternoon sun.
Josh Reddick, whose swing and miss at ball four became the highlight of Max Scherzer's Game 4 escape, declined to swing at any of Verlander's fastballs off the plate, earning Oakland its first baserunner of the night with a two-out walk in the sixth. Stephen Vogt's ensuing fly ball sent Austin Jackson to the warning track in right-center before corralling it.
"He was throwing everything for a strike," Josh Donaldson said, "and when he elevates that fastball just above the strike zone, you have to have your sights elevated, because he has such a good curveball, too. The only time you're going to get to him is when he gets himself in trouble, and he didn't do that today."
Compared with Game 2, this was Verlander at his brashest. There were fewer knee-buckling curveballs, far more fastballs, and fastball command that looked like the Verlander of two years ago. He spent much of the year trying to find that fastball command again. This was the end result.
"His fastball was obviously his best pitch today," Avila said. "The last start here, he had a good fastball but his curveball was so good. Today it was more fastballs. … His fastball today was electric."
Or as Verlander put it, "I was going to make those guys show they could do something with that fastball before I went to other stuff. When I needed a big pitch, that's what I went to."
Not until Yoenis Cespedes connected on a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner and sent a seventh-inning, two-out ground ball through the middle did the A's finally break Verlander's no-hit bid. He soon ended their hopes of something bigger by striking out Seth Smith.
The way Verlander fell off the mound on strike three, he was moving towards the dugout before Smith swung and missed. He might as well have started walking that way.
Verlander finished with eight innings of two-hit shutout ball, walking one and striking out 10. For the series, he tossed 15 scoreless innings on six hits with two runs and 21 strikeouts. Dating back to the regular season, he has tossed 28 consecutive scoreless innings since Seattle's Justin Smoak homered off one of his fastballs on Sept. 18.
It's his mastery of the A's, however, that's historic. His 30 consecutive scoreless innings against the A's are the most by any pitcher against one team in the postseason in Major League history, passing Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson's 28-inning scoreless streak for the New York Giants -- also against the A's, back when they played in Philadelphia.
"Big-game pitcher, that's something people want to talk about. I just go out there when my team needs me the most," Verlander said.