Verlander makes Coliseum his home away from home
OAKLAND -- The A's were home, but so was Justin Verlander. Talk about your hostile takeovers. He moved right in and made O.co Coliseum, not the most inviting of venues, his second residence.
Just call it Justin's Place until further notice.
The Tigers are on their way to Boston for a date with the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. In the decisive Game 5 of the Division Series on Thursday night, Verlander once again humbled the A's in their home yard, out-dueling superlative rookie Sonny Gray in a 3-0 Tigers triumph that quieted the partisan crowd of 46,959.
A sixth-inning walk by Josh Reddick with two away ended Verlander's bid for a perfect game, and the no-hitter got away with Yoenis Cespedes' single up the middle with two down in the seventh. Striking out two in the eighth around a Reddick single, Verlander called it a night with 111 pitches and 10 strikeouts.
Closer Joaquin Benoit took care of the final three outs, the last coming when Seth Smith lifted a fly ball to right fielder Torii Hunter to leave two runners stranded.
"I think the environment has a lot to do with it," Verlander said when asked what it is about the East Bay that brings out the beast in him. "It's very hostile, and it's a lot of fun, really, to be on the mound. Everybody in the ballpark -- 50,000 -- are rooting against me and yelling as loud as they can. I enjoy that just as much as being at home.
"At one point they're chanting, `Let's go Oakland.' In my head, every time they said `Oakland,' I said, `Tigers.'"
This is two years in a row that Verlander has sent the A's home in a winner-take-all game in Oakland. The latest gem was a near replica of his 6-0 shutout of Oakland in its house 12 months earlier in Game 5 of the ALDS. This is getting beyond frustrating for the A's.
"Come next year," said Reddick, "you hope you get these guys again and put it on them."
In three Coliseum postseason appearances the past two years, Verlander has not allowed a run in 24 innings. Since Coco Crisp's leadoff home run in Game 1 of the 2012 ALDS in Detroit, Verlander has worked 30 consecutive scoreless innings against the A's, the longest streak by a pitcher against one team in postseason history.
More than a century ago, the legendary Christy Mathewson worked 28 straight scoreless innings for the New York Giants against the Philadelphia A's, shutting them out three times in the 1905 World Series.
Verlander held the A's to six hits and two walks while striking out 21 in 15 innings in the series. He took a no-decision in a classic confrontation with Gray in Game 2, ending with a walk-off single by A's catcher Stephen Vogt for a 1-0 A's victory. Oakland powered its way to a Game 3 victory in Detroit, but the Tigers rallied to claim a wild Game 4 and gave the A's no breathing room in the clincher.
Gray held the Tigers hitless through three innings before Hunter's one-out single in the fourth was followed by Miguel Cabrera's homer to left, his first extra-base hit of the series. The idea was to bust Cabrera in on his fists, but Gray's pitch caught too much of the plate. Verlander left no margin for error.
Unlike Gray, Verlander had firm command of his exploding fastball from the beginning, bringing his slider, curve and changeup into play for good measure.
"He was on it early," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "We weren't getting very good swings on him. I thought maybe when it started to get darker we would get better swings, but he kept throwing fastballs. [It was] surprising how many fastballs he threw that we swung through, because we're a very good fastball hitting team."
Verlander said he felt he had the right stuff when he woke up Thursday morning. He admittedly had thoughts about joining Don Larsen and Roy Halladay, the only pitchers in history with postseason no-hitters -- a perfect game in Larsen's case -- but "I shoved those to the back of my mind. You see guys have no-hitters late in the game and give up a hit, and the wheels kind of fall off."
On the heels of an uncharacteristic 13-12 season, Verlander appears intent on recapturing his status as the game's premier pitcher.
"I'm pitching the way I'm supposed to," he said. "I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year [with 12 scoreless innings in his final two outings].
"It wasn't easy for me. It was a battle all year long. But I felt like I was finally able to make a couple of adjustments and get myself to be more consistent."
Vogt admired the role Tigers receiver Alex Avila played in Verlander's performance.
"He's a great pitcher, and he and Avila work well together," Vogt said. "They're smart. They did a great job of keeping us off balance."
The AL East-champion Red Sox won four more games this season than the Tigers with a deep lineup and pitching staff. But Boston doesn't have Verlander and co-ace Max Scherzer. They're the equalizers in what promises to be another thrilling series.
The resourceful A's did everything but solve Verlander and Scherzer, who won Game 1 in Oakland and claimed the victory in Game 4 in relief by working out of a series-altering, bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning.
Verlander, who is 7-4 in 13 postseason starts, watched Benoit finish the job and dived into what the Tigers hope is the first of three postseason celebrations.