Even if you knew in your heart of hearts, you could only feel for the Oakland Athletics as they got pushed away from the postseason Thursday night. When Sean Smith pushed a meek grounder to second that Omar Infante fed to a Prince Fielder who must have felt as though it took forever for the final out to reach his mitt.
Whoever said losing hurt worse than winning felt good is probably going to be a grudgingly respected figure by Oakland’s half of the Bay Area.
These extraterrestial A’s didn’t have a Buster Posey to throw up against Justin Verlander in Game Five. It almost wouldn’t have mattered if they’d had a Mantle-Maris, a Mays-McCovey, a Bonds-Kent, or even a Clendenon-Weis to send up against the defending Most Valuable Cy Young winner.
Not on a night when Verlander got down to the serious business of becoming the first Tiger in forty years to throw a postseason shutout. (Joe Coleman threw one in 1972, against a very different collection of A’s.) Not on a night when Verlander was so much his customary self that the Tigers probably put together a four-run seventh just for the exercise.
Not on a night when Verlander was so well arrayed within himself and against these A’s that the only stirring in the Detroit bullpen was the bulls moving as best they could to watch their man work and the A’s flail. Considering how shaky the bullpen had looked for much of the set, that was probably the best thing they could have done to help secure this division series.
Not on a night Verlander became only the sixth pitcher in Show history to punch out ten or more in a maximum-allowed postseason game—joining Hal Newhouser (1945 World Series), Sandy Koufax (1965 World Series), Bob Gibson (1967 World Series), Roger Clemens (2001 World Series), and Cliff Lee (2010 American League division series).
“I don’t have anybody better than him. And if they get to him that much we’ll probably be in trouble,” manager Jim Leyland told reporters when it was over and the champagne was shampooing. “I’m not taking him out, I can assure you of that, because I don’t have anybody better to bring in.”
The much-remarked A’s magic that got them first to snatch the American League West right out from under the Texas Rangers’ grip, then push this set to a fifth game in the first place, dissipated at last. From the moment Verlander busted a fastball past leadoff hitter Coco Crisp, the hero of Game Four, with Crisp swinging so violently his backswing almost curled all the way around his body, Verlander couldn’t have been the only Tiger knowing he’d be calling this dance.
“They’re a great, tough club,” Verlander said after it ended. “But we won.”
Technically, Verlander got all the run he’d need in the top of the third, when Austin Jackson bounced one off the left center field fence to send home Infante. It wasn’t his idea for Oakland starter Jarrod Parker to send Jackson home on a wild pitch after Quintin Berry bunted him over to third.
But if his mates wanted to stake him to four in the seventh—with Jackson dumping one to shallow right center scoring Jhonny Peralta; Oakland reliever Ryan Cook plunking Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded; Fielder following up with an RBI single scoring Jackson; and, Berry scoring while A’s shortstop Stephen Drew’s miscue let batter Delmon Young have first on the house—Verlander certainly wasn’t going to object.
Well, somebody had to do it. Until Fielder singled home Jackson, between Fielder and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera they accounted for only one run batted all set long, and that was Fielder’s solo yank in GameFour. Until Game Five the entire Tiger offence accounted only for six RBI against eleven runs scored and 32 hits, not to mention an 0.93 hit-to-strikeout rate. The Tiger out-hit the A’s until Game Five but the A’s were a little better at reaching base in the same span.
Then it was Verlander. And he was so smothering that none of Oakland’s four Game Five hits produced any more than one man on base at any time. And he didn’t do it by his formidable fastball alone. Maybe the best part of his evening was discovering early that his changeup would cooperate whenever he damn well felt like throwing it.
“I saw it pretty early,” he said. “It was pretty good, and with as many left-handers as they have in this lineup, I was hoping it would be good.”
Whatever he threw was good enough to keep the A’s from even thinking about yet another one of their by now too familiar walkoff wins. These upstarts with fourteen regular-season walkoffs and one more in Game Four now had only one runner reach scoring position in the first seven innings (Yoenis Cespedes, thanks to his two-out double in the first inning); they didn’t see anything remotely like a leadoff hitter reaching base until Josh Donaldson’s bottom of the eighth-opening single.
Parker pitched six and a third stout innings otherwise. Overcome by emotion, it seemed, he buried his face in a towel during the rest of that four-run seventh.
Cook could have been forgiven if he’d wanted to do likewise. At midseason he was Oakland’s only All-Star. Thursday night his ALDS resume showed a grotesque 8.10 earned run average.
All of a sudden, Crisp’s heroics and these A’s season-long, full-team surrealism, not to mention their self-resurrection from as far as thirteen back in the division standings, seemed of another century. Steal the West from Texas? Steal a bomb from Prince Fielder? Steal a Game Four with a game-winning single capping a three-run bottom of the ninth? Let’s step into the Waybac Machine, Sherman.
“No disrespect to anyone,” said stout Oakland closer Grant Balfour to his mates on the dugout steps, as they prepared to square off against Detroit closer Jose Valderde in that three-run Game Four ninth, “but we’re going to rock this guy’s world tonight. We’re going to turn him upside down. We’re going to walk it off in A’s fashion, because that’s what we do.”
The Tigers, who weren’t exactly lamers themselves, in wrestling for a division once thought lost to them, had other ideas for Game Five. Walking it off in Verlander fashion, because that, when the fat lady’s picking her side, is what they like to think they do. At least in Thursday night Game Fives this year, thus far.