OAKLAND, Calif. — If there were any concerns about the viability and effectiveness of Justin Verlander during a rocky regular season, those have been erased after another dominant playoff performance.
Verlander pitched the Detroit Tigers into an American League Championship Series matchup against the Red Sox with yet another clutch outing, holding the A’s to two hits over eight innings, aided by a Miguel Cabrera two-run homer as Detroit edged Oakland in Game 5, 3-0 Thursday night at O.co Coliseum.
It is the sixth time in 14 years the A’s have lost in the fifth game of the ALDS and second time they have been stymied by Verlander in the decisive game.
Verlander struck out 10 with just one walk and didn’t allow a hit until two outs in the seventh, when Yoenis Cespedes singled to center, but he was stranded when Seth Smith struck out on a gorgeous curveball. Before that, Verlander retired 20 of 21 batters, the exception a one-out walk in the sixth inning to Josh Reddick.
“I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be,” said Verlander, who was 13-12 during the regular season. “Big-game pitcher, that’s something people want to talk about. I just go out there when my team needs me the most. Obviously it’s something that you dream about as a kid. It’s pretty exciting to have go out there twice in that [do or die] scenario and do a good job.”
Verlander told manager Jim Leyland he was exhausted after the eighth inning but could pitch to a batter or two in the ninth. Leyland decided to go with closer Joaquin Benoit, who added some angst by allowing two runners to reach before getting Smith to fly to shallow right field.
The Tigers added an insurance run in the sixth. Rookie Sonny Gray, who was not the pinpoint pitcher he was in Game 2, allowed singles to Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta to begin the frame, finally giving way to reliever Dan Otero.
After an Alex Avila fielder’s choice, Omar Infante bounced to third base. Instead of tossing home to nab Martinez, who was running, Josh Donaldson tried for the double play. Second baseman Alberto Callaspo bobbled the throw, barely recording the force at second.
Martinez scored for a 3-0 lead and Gray was charged with the run. In five-plus innings, he allowed three runs and six hits, walking four with three strikeouts. It was a commendable performance for a rookie, but hardly comparable to Verlander.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin announced Wednesday afternoon that Gray, who made 10 regular-season starts, would start over veteran Bartolo Colon, who allowed three first-inning runs in a Game 1 loss.
Gray allowed three runs in five-plus innings, throwing 98 pitches.
“He pitched fine,” Melvin said. “His ball-strike ratio was a little off for him, therefore he couldn’t get deeper into the game. When you don’t score a run and only get a couple of hits, you have to be perfect.”
Gray appeared composed in the early going, allowing only a walk through the first three innings, but he was piling up pitches.
Verlander matched those zeros, putting the pressure back on Gray and he began to show signs of cracking. With one out in the fourth, Torii Hunter singled and then Cabrera, who has been laboring most of the series because of groin and abdomen issues, smacked Gray’s second pitch over the left-field wall for his first homer of the series.
It was apparent from his movement and velocity that Verlander would be a difficult opponent, even moreso when the Detroit offense staked him to a lead. He was more demonstrative in his Game 2 performance. On Thursday, he walked off the mound after innings with little emotion.
“It was a level of focus saying, ‘I can’t allow them to score,’ ” he said. “I was going to make those guys show they could do something with the fastball before I went to other stuff. When I needed a big pitch, that’s what I went to because of the results I was having.”
Nearly a year ago to the day, Verlander tossed a shutout, striking out 11 as the Tigers beat the A’s, 6-0, in Game 5 of the ALDS. After Thursday, Verlander is 4-0 lifetime in the ALDS with a 1.78 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 45⅓ innings.
After a rough August, Verlander regained his groove in September. He struck out six in the first five innings, and the O.co Coliseum crowd sensed it would be a difficult evening for the home team, cheering vigorously when balls were hit out of the infield. And that wasn’t often.
Six A’s hit fly balls during Verlander’s eight innings, all of them easily gathered for outs. One runner reached second base during Verlander’s stint; Reddick, who walked, left stranded in the sixth.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe