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In a jam, Tigers can still dream big and play ultimate trump card in Justin Verlander

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

OAKLAND, Calif. – The common perception of the Detroit Tigers was that they should have been better, a notion that of course rankled Jim Leyland to no end. Nevertheless, the opinion adhered itself to his club, to a bur of a regular season that was good enough but not great enough.

They were too skilled to be in third place in mid-July, too deep to run second as recently as 2½ weeks ago, and too pretty to mix with the likes of mediocrity. Leyland perhaps knew better, that the game finds you at least as often as you find it. Where everyone else may have seen underachievers he saw a ballclub getting through it. Finding itself. Wringing the season from its shoulders every night and showing up the next afternoon.

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In two ALDS starts this season, Justin Verlander struck out 22 Athletics. (AP)

Greatness, he knew, was not granted in January, not in any league he'd ever played or managed in. It didn't come with a stinkin' press conference, no matter how grand, even if Scott Boras sat at the same table. Maybe this is a little too old school, but Leyland attached value to 162, in counting it all up at the end, in measuring the determination as well as the result.

The Tigers aren't great, not yet. They arrived to the postseason having gathered themselves with eight wins over 10 late-September nights, and aided by the White Sox, who lost 11 of their last 15. They were fine. They were just good enough.

And now, as of a Thursday night in which they gave the ball to Justin Verlander and three hours later got it back, the Tigers are in October where everyone figured they'd be, you know, in January.

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Under a dark sky, in a foreign ballpark, up against the eminently game Oakland A's, the Tigers were 6-0 winners. They return to the American League Championship Series, which is where they left off last year. A team that couldn't quite hit to our standards, that couldn't always pitch to our expectations, it partied its way to four wins from the World Series.

Leyland, who'd spent the day watching the early games on television with his wife and marveling at how special his sport can be, at the end of this five-game series hugged Prince Fielder, hugged Verlander, then went to find Bob Melvin, his friend and the manager of the A's. The Tigers were through as underachievers, a leap Leyland certainly would not recognize.

What he could make out was a game Saturday, in Detroit or New York.

"We got this far," he said. "We've had to work hard to do it. We had to work hard to win the division. We certainly had to work hard to win this series. But, you know what? I've been saying this since April – I like our club, through thick and thin I've been saying that I like our club. And I still like our club."

He needed look back only a night to know there are flaws. The Tigers won 88 games, which in the other league would have tied them with the second wild card. But, the best hitter in the game – Miguel Cabrera – is in his lineup, and Fielder can be exceptional, and every five days Verlander's turn comes around. It came around just in time to turn back the A's, a team and a story and practically a spiritual movement that sometimes seemed immovable.

As the Tigers fell into each other's arms following Verlander's 122-pitch, four-hit, 11-strikeout, stake-your-butts-to-the-bullpen-bench phenomenon, the A's gathered in front of their dugout and waved good-bye. They hoisted their caps above their heads, and the people refused to leave, many of them having refused to come only weeks before.

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Tigers manager Jim Leyland shares a moment with Prince Fielder after beating the A's on Thursday. (AP)

It was sweet and entirely appropriate to have both teams linger on the field, where the A's had rallied from two games down over two explosive evenings, and where the Tigers finally had put them down. The team that nobody saw coming had validated themselves against the team everyone waited for. When they disengaged from their own mid-infield dog pile, Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta tilted their own caps to the A's dugout.

Eight days before, when the AL West championship was still fresh and that dastardly play-in game was somebody else's heart attack, A's general manager Billy Beane pulled up one of those wry smiles and exalted, "Yay, Verlander!"

What he meant was, "Not yay, Verlander."

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The man's a beast. Given two starts in a best-of-five series, he was the nudge that separated a team from its magic. Verlander won Game 1 and he won Game 5. Everything in between was the Tigers working to get the series back to him and the A's churning to avoid him, until that was the only possibility left. In those two starts, Verlander pitched 16 innings, allowed one run, walked five and struck out 22. Going back a ways, batters are 1-for-29 against Verlander with runners in scoring position. The A's had two of those opportunities, as it were, in Game 5. Both resulted in infield groundouts.

"It's like a locomotive going at a high speed," Melvin would say. "He was tough to deal with. Unfortunately he had really good stuff tonight and carried it all the way through."

Afterward, Verlander said he'd never pitched better, in part because the Tigers rarely needed him more.

"The two no-hitters are obviously up there, but that's something a little bit different," he said. "This is a win-or-go home. My team needs me."

Jose Valverde, whose inability to get through the ninth inning Wednesday night had summoned Verlander, grinned wildly in a raucous postgame party. He poured something like Champagne over his own head and celebrated the greatness he'd watched from foul territory.

"I've never seen a pitcher like him," he said.

Verlander had cut straight through the A's, through the sudden love from the stands, through all that made the A's so improbably capable. He'd throw a pitch and come down from the mound and demand the ball back, desperate to get on with it. And the next pitch would be like the last, thrown with all the resolve and ego and meanness he could gather. Stephen Drew struck out four times. Seth Smith, Josh Reddick and Derek Norris struck out twice each. When the Tigers scored a run in the third inning off rookie starter Jarrod Parker, it seemed almost unfair when they scored another later in the inning.

"He had that look in his eyes today," Leyland said of his ace. "He was determined. He had a complete-game look in his eye. And we were thankful to get that."

As a result, or at least partly, the Tigers will play for more. This, now, can be who they are. They can wait out the Yankees and Orioles, and they can be just that. No better or worse than their record, or their standing, or the perception of them.

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"I felt like we should have been better," Verlander said. "I felt – and at times I said – we were inconsistent … [But] we never let ourselves fall out of it. And coming down the stretch I think you found out what kind of team this is. When we had to win, we did.

"We just went out there and just said, 'Keep playing baseball and see where it ends up.' "

No, the Tigers aren't great. Not yet. Maybe not ever. But, they're here, and for the moment that would do.

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