OAKLAND, Calif. – There will be more made of the Oakland A's, and who they are come October, and what it means for them when it's time to play baseball on a field lined for football. They lose a lot of those games, certainly enough of the important ones, and the easy and reliable suspicion is the A's lack something within. Whether they are organizationally flawed or framed for one time of year but not the other or simply unlucky, they play themselves routinely to a place of silent, rueful farewells. There were plenty of those on Thursday night. There will be more made of it.
Well, here's the thing with all that: Justin Verlander.
Six times in 14 years the A's have played to a Game 5 of the American League Division Series. They've won none. They've lost two – the past two, 364 days apart, both at O.co Coliseum – to Verlander. To 17 shutout innings over those two games. To, Thursday night, eight innings of fastballs they could not catch up to and sliders they could not reach and changeups they could not track.
(Before Verlander came long, the A's had lost Game 5's started by, working backward, Pedro Martinez, Brad Radke, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.)
Over the last two division series, Verlander has thrown 30 consecutive scoreless innings against the A's, the longest postseason streak by a starter against a single team ever.
After the eighth inning Thursday, Verlander came off the mound, went to manager Jim Leyland and admitted, "I'm getting a little low here." Leyland nodded. Verlander had thrown 111 pitches. He'd not allowed a hit until Yoenis Cespedes grounded a single with two out in the seventh inning. He'd struck out 10 and walked one. But, he said to Leyland, "I want to go back out there."
He didn't. Leyland wouldn't allow it. Closer Joaquin Benoit survived a squishy ninth inning, the Detroit Tigers won 3-0 and packed for Boston and the ALCS, and Verlander was soaked in the visitors' clubhouse here by happy and relieved teammates.
"It burns," Verlander said with a wide smile. "It's fantastic."
He arrived for a news conference dripping, sat still for 10 minutes or so, and upon departing said, "You're gonna wanna change seats for the next guy. It's soaking."
The chair was rotated out for Miguel Cabrera, who'd shuffled through a difficult series at less than full health, did what he could when he could, and in the fourth inning hit a waist-high fastball over the left-field fence.
"We're here in the playoffs, man," he said. "I said before, everybody talks about what's going on with me, you know, and everybody can talk what they [want to] talk. I want to do my job, man. I want to be with the team. I want to play with my heart."
They'd won the final two games, after being down a game. They'd rallied back from three runs down in Game 4. They'd gotten after Sonny Gray, the 23-year-old right-hander who'd shut them out – opposite Verlander – for eight innings of Game 2. They'd beaten back their own October demons – perhaps temporarily – behind Verlander, and Cabrera's arm-sy two-run home run, and a Game 5 they'd played with great precision.
Mostly, however, this was about Verlander. All of it: the failure of the A's and the triumph of the Tigers. This Game 5, like all Game 5's, was about the moment, and dozens of played out and forgotten trials of skill and nerve. When they counted them up at the end, he'd won again. He'd seen the oversized photos of his former girlfriend bouncing in the crowd ("I did notice that," he said, grinning. "No comment.), he'd heard the "Let's go Oakland" chants ("In my head, every time they said, ‘Oakland,' I said, ‘Tigers,'" he said.), and he'd had a helluva good time.
Verlander had smoothed his mechanics, pitched without regard to where his shoulder or elbow or knee might be, because he knew they'd be where they were supposed to be, and retired the first 16 A's batters. He walked Josh Reddick, then retired four more in a row.
"Yeah, there were thoughts of a no-hitter," he said.
He'd thrown two before.
"I shoved those [thoughts] to the back of my mind," he said.
After the single by Cespedes, he stopped himself on the back of the mound, composed himself, took a breath and went back to the fastballs the A's could not hit. By the end, yeah, he'd won. Again. Over two postseason series against the A's, in four starts, he'd allowed 13 hits and a run over 31 innings. He'd struck out 43 of them. He was that good, and for this to be viewed as a flaw in the A's, one must overlook the genius that has been Verlander against them.
The Tigers, as they would, could only see Verlander in that.
"He's amazing," said Dave Dombrowski, president and general manager of the Tigers. "You can't pitch much better than that."
Asked his preference in Verlander's wins here over the past year, Leyland said, "This was better because that one was a long, long time ago and this one is pretty current. So I'll take this one."
He'd had an unspectacular season by his considerable standards. He'd been hittable. He'd been beatable and oddly vulnerable. On this field, on plenty of nights now, against this team, however, he was – is – the pitcher who sends everyone into football season. To the A's, we'd say, it's not about you. It's about him. Again.