DETROIT (AP) — A season's worth of tinkering finally paid off for Justin Verlander.
For months, the Detroit right-hander insisted he was on the verge of finding the MVP form that had deserted him — and although that appeared to be a false hope for a while, Verlander was at his best when the Tigers needed him most. For a second straight season, Verlander delivered in Game 5 of the AL division series, eliminating Oakland with an eight-inning masterpiece Thursday night and sending Detroit to its third straight championship series.
"Knowing from jump street that things weren't right this year, I battled and was making end-game and mid-game adjustments, throwing multiple bullpens," Verlander said. "You don't want to think about it too much, but it's hard to do when you're trying to find something to make it click. But it was a good time to find it here this last month."
A year after winning the American League pennant, the Tigers will face Boston in the ALCS. The last time Verlander faced the Red Sox was in June. He lasted only five innings while his ERA jumped to 3.90.
It was certainly an uncharacteristic season for the 2011 AL Most Valuable Player. He went 13-12, and the Tigers lost almost all of his no-decisions. Detroit went 14-20 in Verlander's starts, and he was overshadowed by teammate Max Scherzer, who went 21-3 and is a favorite to take this year's AL Cy Young Award.
Manager Jim Leyland picked Scherzer to start the postseason opener — a move endorsed publicly by Verlander — but after Detroit fell behind in the series, Scherzer was needed in relief in Game 4. That left Verlander to pitch Thursday's winner-take-all finale.
A year ago, he shut out the A's in Game 5 of the division series, and this was almost a carbon copy. Verlander allowed two hits in eight innings, striking out 10 in Detroit's 3-0 win.
"He always rises to the occasion," Scherzer said. "You knew Game 5 he was going to bring it. He's just so nasty. His fastball, his off-speed stuff ... it's remarkable."
Verlander also threw seven scoreless innings in a Game 2 loss to the A's. He's the first pitcher to go an entire postseason series without allowing a run, while throwing at least 15 innings, since Mike Hampton of the New York Mets in the 2000 NLCS, according to STATS.
His dominance of Oakland has been staggering. Verlander allowed a leadoff homer to Coco Crisp in Game 1 of last year's division series, and the A's haven't scored on him in the playoffs since. He's held them without a run for 30 straight innings in the postseason.
"Sometimes a guy can really pitch well against a certain team and pitch five days later against somebody else and get knocked around. It's hard to figure out," Leyland said. "But when this guy has it going, he pitches well against everybody."
As recently as mid-September, Verlander still looked a bit shaky, but in his last two starts of the regular season, he threw six scoreless innings against Minnesota and six more against Miami. Neither of those teams has a potent offense, so it was hard to tell how much Verlander was really improving.
Oakland, however, had no problem putting up runs — except when Verlander and Scherzer were on the mound. Those two right-handers were Detroit's trump cards.
"When we started the series we thought we had it set up right. We knew we had two choices in Game 5. We had to spend Max in Game 4, we had to do it, so that left Justin for Game 5," Leyland said. "Justin rises to the occasion. I can usually tell by the look on his face and his demeanor prior to a game when he's zeroed in and locked in, and he was locked in."