The parallels were very clear going into this one. Game five, rowdy Oakland crowd, Justin Verlander, do or die. But there were plenty of differences. Last year, they were facing a pitcher they’d already beaten, not one who had dominated them in game two. They had a healthy lineup with Miguel Cabrera in the middle of it. They were coming off a horrible loss in game four whereas 2013 was the total opposite.
But the results, as it turns out, were the same. In fact, you could argue that Verlander was even better tonight than he was a year ago as he and Joaquin Benoit combined to shut out the Oakland Athletics 3-0 with some timely production from the upper half of Miguel Cabrera.
The A’s started Sonny Gray, the man who completely dominated the Tigers in game two. On this night, though, the Tigers did not see the same Gray. His command was never quite there – particularly his curveball, which was frequently not tempting to Tigers hitters. This allowed the Tigers to be patient and sit on fastballs and hope for the best.
The first signs of trouble for Gray came in the second inning, when he walked Prince Fielder and went 3-2 on Jhonny Peralta. For the second time in the series, Jim Leyland put on a hit and run, and once again it resulted in a strike ‘em out throw ‘em out double play. Gray had to throw some pitches, though.
It was the fourth where Gray made his only real mistake. After allowing a single to Torii Hunter, he left a fastball up to Miguel Cabrera. He didn’t need his legs to send it over the left field wall and put the Tigers up 2-0. The Tigers would leave three on in that inning and two more in the fifth, but they got an insurance run in the sixth when Alberto Callaspo couldn’t handle what should have been an inning-ending double play, allowing Victor Martinez to score.
The rest of the story belongs to Verlander. He didn’t allow his first baserunner until there was one out in the sixth inning, when he walked Josh Reddick. He took a no-hitter into the seventh, losing it on a two out single by Yoenis Cespedes. That and a two out single to Reddick in the eighth were the only two hits he allowed. He struck out the next batter both times to end the inning, throwing 111 pitches. He struck out ten and got 24 swinging strikes, which tied a career best.
Joaquin Benoit made things exciting in the ninth. He got the first two in order before giving up a double to Jed Lowrie. Benoit then hit Yoenis Cespedes with a 2-2 pitch, bringing the tying run to the plate in the person of Seth Smith, who has tormented the Tigers all series. But Benoit got Smith to pop up a 2-1 pitch to shallow right, ending the ballgame and eliminating Oakland once again.
The Tigers actually had eight hits on the day. The offense wasn’t great, but it was good enough. And Verlander’s brilliance ensured that the Tigers would be boarding a flight to Boston for the ALCS once they were finished trashing the Coliseum clubhouse.