OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – After a season of ups and downs, constant adjustments and, even questions about whether he could still be that dominant pitcher, Justin Verlander left no doubts he is every bit an ace for the Detroit Tigers.
The AL Central champions rode their star right-hander back to the AL championship series after he pitched another spectacular Game 5 clincher in the division series at Oakland, carrying a no-hit bid into the seventh inning of a 3-0 victory Thursday night.
“Big-game pitcher, that’s something people want to talk about. I just go out there when my team needs me the most,” Verlander said. “That’s what I’ve worked so hard for this year, to be able to get to this point.”
With a 13-12 regular-season record, Verlander had just one victory in his final 10 starts and the Tigers lost in nine of those outings. Nobody is thinking about any of that now that Detroit moved a step closer to a return trip to the World Series.
Miguel Cabrera provided all the offense Verlander needed with one sweet swing, hitting a two-run homer in the fourth against rookie Sonny Gray as Detroit eliminated the A’s again.
“We won the game, that’s all it’s about,” Cabrera said. “We want to win a World Series, man, that’s our goal.”
Joaquin Benoit retired Seth Smith on a fly ball with two on in the ninth to close out the deciding game of the series. The Tigers became the first team to reach the ALCS in three straight years since the New York Yankees reached four years in a row from 1998-2001.
Anibal Sanchez will start Game 1 in Boston on Saturday. The Tigers went 4-3 against the Red Sox this year, but they have never faced each other in the postseason.
Detroit staved off elimination at home in Game 4, overcoming a three-run deficit on Tuesday. Behind Verlander, the Tigers never trailed in shutting out Oakland in Game 5 for the second straight October.
The big right-hander gave up a clean, two-out single to Yoenis Cespedes in the seventh to end his chance at the third no-hitter in postseason history. The hit hardly fazed him, however.
“We got pretty close there, seven innings is pretty unbelievable,” catcher Alex Avila said. “To be honest, I thought we had a chance. He had the stuff for it, he had no-hit stuff.”
On a night he allowed only two hits and three baserunners in eight innings, Verlander made it a postseason-record 30 straight scoreless innings against one team since Coco Crisp hit a leadoff home run for the A’s in Game 1 last October.
Just 364 days earlier, Verlander tossed a four-hit, 6-0 masterpiece in Game 5 in this very ballpark, a 122-pitch performance for his first career postseason shutout and complete game.
Aching slugger Cabrera connected in the fourth, a drive into the left-field seats for his first homer since Sept. 17 and just his third extra-base hit in 99 at-bats. That ended a 20-inning scoreless streak by the Tigers at the Coliseum.
Gray danced with danger from the start with stuff not nearly as crisp as just five nights before when he matched zeros with the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner.
Verlander struck out 10, giving him 21 Ks in these two starts. He has 43 strikeouts in his four playoff outings against Oakland the past two years.
The A’s saw their season end at the hands of Detroit for the third time in as many postseasons, including in a four-game sweep in the 2006 ALCS.
Oakland has lost its last six winner-take-all Game 5s and fell to 1-12 in potential clinchers since 2000. The A’s struck out 57 times for the most in a best-of-five playoff series.
Verlander earned the nod for the decider after Game 1 winner Max Scherzer pitched in relief of an 8-6, season-saving win Game 4 in Detroit.
“He was on it early,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We weren’t getting very good swings on him. I thought maybe when it started to get darker, we would get better swings, but he kept throwing fastballs. Surprising how many fastballs he threw that we swung through, because we’re a very good fastball hitting team.”
Gray, meanwhile, looked overmatched this time. He wiped his brow and never got comfortable. Then, he broke his left thumb on Prince Fielder’s fifth-inning comebacker. Melvin went with Gray over 18-game winner and 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, who yielded three first-inning runs to lose Game 1.
The 93-win Tigers are determined to take the next step and win a championship after being swept in four games of the 2012 World Series by the San Francisco Giants.
“That’s the motivation that we’ve been looking for, that we’ve had all year,” Verlander said.