OAKLAND — Justin Verlander has thrown two no-hitters and struck out as many as 14 batters in a game twice. None of those ranked as high in his estimation as Thursday night’s performance.
With the Detroit Tigers staring at a huge collapse against an Oakland Athletics club that seemed destined to continue its storybook season, Verlander took control of his team’s destiny as few pitchers players.
The defending American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner threw the first postseason shutout of his career, holding the A’s to four hits and striking out 11 as Detroit claimed this AL Division Series with a 6-0 win in Game 5.
“This is win or go home,” Verlander said. “My team needs me, and 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.”
The Tigers, preseason favorites who had to win eight of their last 10 games to reach the playoffs, made it to the AL Championship Series for the second year in a row, a franchise first.
After taking a 2-0 series lead, they had to fight every step of the way to fend off the A’s, who stunned them with a ninth-inning three-run rally the night before to force a decisive game.
Detroit will play the winner of the New York Yankees-Baltimore Orioles series, which is tied 2-2 going into Friday’s finale. Last year Detroit outlasted the Yankees in the Division Series before falling to the Texas Rangers in six games in the ALCS. The Tigers last made it to the World Series in 2006.
“We had our horse, and our horse stepped up,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said, his shirt soaked in celebratory champagne.
Verlander, who had held Oakland to three hits and a run over seven innings in a 3-1 victory in Game 1, was even stingier this time. He didn’t allow a runner to reach third base and kept the A’s from even entertaining the kind of late rally that had become their trademark as they won 15 games in walk-off fashion, including Wednesday’s 4-3 victory.
“After yesterday’s loss, I’m sure everybody in Detroit thought we were not going to win today,” catcher Alex Avila said, “but we had the best pitcher in the game going and I liked our chances.”
Rookie starter Jarrod Parker kept Oakland in the game until the seventh, when the Tigers combined four hits, a walk, a hit-by-pitch and sloppy A’s fielding for four runs that increased their lead to 6-0.
In the bottom half, Verlander retired the heart of Oakland’s lineup 1-2-3, quashing any notions of a comeback.
“You know you’re in for a battle every single pitch,” said Coco Crisp, who hit a homer off Verlander leading off Game 1 but went 0-for-4 Thursday. “His changeup was really good tonight. He utilized that well, keeping us off-balance.”
With Detroit’s potent duo of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder held in check — they combined for three RBI in the series — secondary figures did much of the damage.
Leadoff man Austin Jackson drove in the game’s first run with a third-inning double, then pushed the lead to 2-0 when he scored on Parker’s second wild pitch of the inning.
Last-place hitter Omar Infante, who went 3-for-8 with three runs scored in the first two games, made an impact again with two hits, a walk and two runs.
“Your big guys can’t do it every game,” Dombrowski said. “They’re really good and they’re going to have their days in the postseason, but they can’t do it every day, so you have to have other people pick it up. They get the attention, but Jackson’s a really good player; he’s had a tremendous year. And Infante’s been a really nice addition for us.”
After the A’s storybook season ended as their feast-or-famine offense was shut down, most of the sellout crowd of 36,393 stayed and paid them tribute with a sustained ovation.
The players came out of the dugout to acknowledge the cheers, and some Tigers even interrupted their on-field celebration to tip their caps to a club of rookies and rejects that somehow took them to the edge of elimination.
“There’s quite a few teams not playing tomorrow. I don’t know if any other teams got that ovation we got,” A’s outfielder Jonny Gomes said. “We compete, we battle, we fight, but that was one of the most professional things I’ve seen on the field, what the Tigers did for us.”
It might have been a different story, except for what Verlander did for the Tigers.