Even after the heart-breaking Game 4 loss Wednesday night, a lot of Tigers fans woke up the next morning feeling pretty good. Justin Verlander was on the mound. Everything was going to be OK. In a series where Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder struggled, the Tigers' ace remained the one sure thing fans could count on.
He didn't let them down.
With a four-hit, 11-strikeout shutout performance, Verlander made it a certainty that the Tigers would head to the ALCS for a second consecutive year. A run-scoring surge in the seventh inning made the game's final 6-0 score easier on the nerves, but by the time the Tigers took a 2-0 lead in the third you just knew it would be enough.
By that point, Verlander had struck out three of the first five A's he'd faced. Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Verlander had that "complete-game look" in his eyes. He'd pitched efficiently, keeping the count in a range that would allow him to go deep into the night. He controlled the game, pulling strings like a puppeteer. "I expected to go nine innings," Verlander said during his post game press conference.
We expected him to go nine innings, too.
Verlander has grown over the years. He's grew into the role of ace on the Tigers' staff. Every team has a No. 1 pitcher in the rotation, not a lot have a true ace. Verlander learned to pitch more efficient in 2011, threw his second no-hitter, earned Cy Young and MVP accolades in the American League. Yet his playoff run left a bit to be desired. That wasn't entirely Verlander's fault. The weather played a part, cutting starts short. Yet even when his games weren't cut short, he wasn't quite the ace he's grown to be. In his last appearance of the year, Game 5 of the ALCS, he allowed four runs while pitching into the eighth inning. Good, but maybe not great.
His numbers were a bit off in 2012, yet the lessons of 2011 remained. He'd become an even harder-nosed pitcher than before, arguably a better pitcher. The lessons were tested in the ALDS, and the weather didn't play a factor this time. Verlander aced both exams. In Game 1, he threw seven innings of one-run ball, striking out 11. Combine that with Game 5, your series totals look like this: 16 innings, 22 strikeouts, seven hits and one run allowed. That run came off the bat of the first A's batter to face Verlander in the series.
Thanks to Verlander, a short series against the Tigers is almost unfair. You know you're going to see him at the start. You pretty much have to win the next three games, or you're going to see him again. The A's did all they could. They shut out the Tigers in Game 3. They rallied back against Detroit's bullpen in Game 4. But their reward was the chance to see Verlander in a series-decider. Some reward, huh?
In a series where Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were held in check -- and they combining to go 1-for-9 in Game 5 -- Verlander took his team on his back and won two games.
Does he have better starts in him? It's hard to get much better results than he did Thursday night in Oakland. But with Verlander, anything is possible for the Tigers -- even winning a game everybody outside of Detroit expected them to lose.