October 7, 2012
DETROIT — On the American League side of October, the handwriting is already on the wall.
This sets up to be a playoff showcase for home run hitters and Justin Verlander.
The Tigers' dominator is in a group of five guys who seem likely to be listed on every Cy Young ballot that has been sent to members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. David Price is a slight favorite to stop Verlander from repeating as the American League's winner, but like Jered Weaver, Fernando Rodney (Mr. 0.60) and Chris Sale, he couldn't do enough to get his team into the postseason.
Verlander did, and now he's a threat to hog the stage. He buried the Athletics in Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Saturday night, striking out 11 en route to a 3-1 victory on a chilly night at Comerica Park.
It was his ninth career playoff start and by far his best, especially considering it came against the AL's highest-scoring team since the All-Star break.
"I tried to use (my experience) to my advantage,'' Verlander said. "Having experienced these type of atmospheres and knowing what to expect out of myself — the adrenaline, the angst, everything — I felt like I was able to corral that a little bit better and use it to my advantage.''
Verlander twice started in the 2006 World Series as a rookie, but he came into this game with a 3-3 record and 5.57 ERA in the postseason. Manager Jim Leyland blamed extra rest for Verlander seeming almost human in the early innings and seemed to find nothing that remarkable with his striking out five in a row at one point.
"His stuff is what it is,'' Leyland said. "Very good stuff with a bunch of above-average major league pitches. Nothing surprises you with him.''
Consider it a major surprise that the A's are in the playoffs. They are one of the best stories of the season, coming together in the second half with a rotation headed by rookies Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone, who faces the Tigers' Doug Fister in Game 2 on Sunday.
By winning their last six games, including a sweep of the Rangers in the season-ending series, the A's completed a comeback only four other teams (1914 Braves, '51 Giants, '78 Yankees and '95 Mariners) had, recovering from a 13-game deficit to finish in first place. This always might be remembered as a collapse in Texas, but a 57-26 record after June 30 makes the A's what the Amazin' Mets were to the '69 Cubs.
But that's where this comparison stops. The A's don't have Tom Seaver; the Tigers do.
Verlander was dominant after allowing a home run to leadoff hitter Coco Crisp. Talk about false hope.
Verlander would walk Yoenis Cespedes in the first inning, but he never again allowed the A's two baserunners in an inning. Plate umpire Jim Reynolds was calling a wide strike zone, and Verlander used all of it.
"I think we were a little frustrated, yeah,'' A's manager Bob Melvin said.
As he often does, Verlander got tougher and tougher as the game went on with his performance elevating like a great tenor building his voice in a crescendo before the final notes.
If there was a turning point, it came in the third inning. After Stephen Drew pulled a one-out double into left field, Verlander retired Cespedes on a grounder to third base and then recovered from a 3-0 hole to strike out No. 4 hitter Brandon Moss.
It's possible Moss never could get his head right after Reynolds gave Verlander a 3-0 pitch that was six inches off the plate, maybe more. Or maybe it didn't matter, as he was no match for the 2011 MVP.
Verlander had at least one strikeout in every inning. He was getting swings and misses on high-90s fastballs in his five-strikeout run, which started with Moss, Josh Reddick and Josh Donaldson in the sixth, the last of which came on a 99-mph fastball. Seth Smith and Derek Norris went down swinging through 97- and 98-mph fastballs to start the seventh.
While the crowd of 43,323 buzzed every time Miguel Cabrera came to the plate, Parker and the bullpen kept him at bay. The Triple Crown hitter got a run home with a double-play grounder in the first but was 0-for-3 with a walk.
That's OK. The way Verlander was pitching, anything from the big man would have been overkill.
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