DETROIT -- Must win?
Sure, when Justin Verlander pitches for the Detroit Tigers.
"You have to win when Justin in on the mound," catcher Alex Avila said Saturday night after Detroit did indeed win the first game of its best-of-five divisional American League Division Series from the Oakland A's, 3-1.
"But they're all 'must win.' It's going to definitely be tough going against them at their place."
Verlander was a little wobbly in the first three innings but still turned in an impressive performance.
He allowed a leadoff home run to Coco Crisp, then just two hits thereafter.
His pitch count was at 61 after three innings, yet he lasted through seven while throwing 121.
Two of his four walks came in the first two innings, but of his 11 strikeouts, five straight came in the sixth and seventh.
"I think most good starters, you try to get to them before they get into their rhythm," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "He certainly got better as the game went on. His velocity picked up like it typically does with him."
Detroit manager Jim Leyland said, "I really think the big thing is this was his seventh day (since last starting), and I think it took him a while to get back into sync.
"He's a real 'routine' guy. I think probably he was a little bit out of sync early because of that."
Verlander said, "Early on, I just didn't have great control with any of my pitches. Obviously, somewhat of a mistake to Coco leading off, but I was able to get some key outs after that.
"As the game went on, I started finding the zone a little bit, not just finding the zone, but quality strikes."
The Tigers got Verlander back to square one in the bottom of the first when Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera tied the score by grounding into a double play with runners at first and third.
Quintin Berry's speed produced a third-inning run that broke the tie, and Avila's home run leading off the fifth gave Verlander some breathing room.
Verlander gave up a one-out double in the third, then prevented the runner from advancing, and yielded a leadoff single in the fifth.
Oakland drove Verlander out after six innings on Sept. 19, pushing his pitch count to 122 by fouling off 34 pitches, but he still exited as the winning pitcher.
The A's exhibited more patience this time, but taking pitches began to backfire when Verlander settled into a rhythm by the fourth. He fanned six of the last nine batters he faced.
The strikeouts irked some of the A's, and Josh Reddick (three whiffs) felt the fact it was Verlander pitching might have carried some weight.
"The strike zone is just one way, not (different) because you have a big name," Reddick said. "Stuff expands when it doesn't need to. The plate hasn't grown for over 100 years just because your name is on the back of the jersey."
Joaquin Benoit pitched the eighth for the Tigers and gave the crowd a chill when Brandon Moss drove Andy Dirks back to the right field wall for the second out after Yoenis Cespedes had singled to left with one out. Benoit struck out Josh Reddick to end the inning.
Jose Valverde struck out two of the three batters he faced in the ninth to earn the save.
Detroit's Omar Infante doubled with one out in the third and scored with two outs because of Berry's speed. Berry topped a ground ball down the first base line, and Oakland pitcher Jarrod Parker couldn't corral the ball.
First baseman Moss was coming toward the ball, too, and Parker was caught between trying to catch the ball, which wouldn't have resulted in an out, and flipping the ball to a vacant first base. The ball bounced off Parker's glove and got far enough past first that Infante was able to scoot home uncontested.
"I felt like I had a chance when they both went for it," Berry said of what he thought as he was speeding down the baseline. "Then he lost it somewhere. I appreciate that."
Parker wound up pitching 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on seven hits.
Oakland reliever Pat Neshek, whose one-day-old son died earlier this week, got two outs in the seventh inning. Jerry Blevins pitched a shutout eighth, as the A's extended their run of stellar relief pitching. The Oakland bullpen hasn't allowed a run in 24 innings.
Game 2 is Sunday in Detroit.
NOTES: Oakland's roster included lefty Brett Anderson, who faced Detroit in mid-September but suffered a pulled oblique muscle in the start. He'll go against the Tigers in Oakland. ... Detroit's roster did not include Brennan Boesch, whose playing time went to nearly zero the last three weeks of the season. Rick Porcello is not in the four-man rotation but was kept as a reliever for use in extra-inning games. ... A's manager Bob Melvin played college ball at Eastern Michigan University, about a 45 minutes up the freeway from Comerica Park. He was signed by the Tigers and played his first major league game for Detroit in May 25, 1985.