|After a vintage performance, Justin Verlander gets showered with praise -- and bubbly. (Getty Images)|
OAKLAND, Calif. -- You got the feeling that Justin Verlander would have stayed in the game for 222 pitches, if that's what it took. Or 322. Anybody for 422?
Instead, from here to champagne, it was 122. Mark it down and pop the corks. What a difference a day makes ... when it's Verlander's day to pitch.
What this man did to the Oakland A's storybook season isn't even legal in some states. He didn't just beat them. He asphyxiated them. Cut off their breathing passages. Flatlined their summer.
What you saw in the Tigers' 6-0 joyride in Game 5 was the reason why, as this team wheezed and sputtered through parts of its season, it always was a monumental mistake to underestimate them. At least, in ink.
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Mark it down and pop the corks: second successive October the Tigers are headed to the AL Championship Series.
"His goal in every one of his starts is to not give up a hit and not give up a run," said catcher Alex Avila, cigar clutched in his left hand and champagne dripping from his right. "Today was as complete as he's been. ... Today, he had it going. Location, fastball, mixing his off-speed stuff for strikes.
"He's the same guy every time. That's something people always ask, because it's the playoffs, is it any different. The thing is, once you get out there and change your routine, that's what gets you in trouble."
Avila is eminently qualified to speak on the topic now because, as general manager Dave Dombrowski noted in the roaring Tigers clubhouse, these guys have been there, done that now. They know what October is all about. They know that sometimes you win, sometimes you're dealt an absolutely crushing loss (see Game 4, a night earlier) but at all times, you must keep clear eyes and full hearts.
They also know that if all else fails, give the ball to Verlander.
"Having Justin and Miguel Cabrera on your team, those are definitely two picks you want to have," said the man who is a third pick you want to have, Prince Fielder. "That's one of the reasons why I signed here."
There are $214 million other reasons why Fielder signed with Detroit, too, over nine years. When the Tigers inked him last winter following a devastating off-season knee injury to slugger Victor Martinez, the pundits immediately pegged the Tigers as runaway favorites in the AL Central.
It didn't turn out that way. Reality was, the Tigers needed six months to outlast the White Sox. Just as, after taking the first two games of this series from the Athletics, they needed all five games to survive more harrowing moments in order to advance.
Following Jose Valverde's epic meltdown Wednesday, Leyland and the Tigers never lost their equilibrium. It was almost as if the old manager knew something.
Before the winner-take-all Game 5, he did. Sort of.
"He had that look in his eyes today," Leyland said of Verlander. "He was determined. He had a complete-game look in his eye. And we were thankful to get that."
Nobody in the game today brings the total package of Verlander in terms of stuff, stamina, willpower and competitive arrogance. And that last part isn't meant as a negative. No way. Often, that's what separates the elite players from the pretenders.
The guy won both the AL MVP and Cy Young award last year. He has thrown two no-hitters and narrowly missed a handful of others. He openly talks about his burning desire to pitch to the level of a Hall of Famer.
At 29, he's at the top of his game. And in case you were questioning that because his 2012 didn't come with the pomp, circumstance and hype that his 2011 did, Game 5 here answered every doubt anybody could have had.
"For me, personally, this has got to be right up there" on a list of career-best games, Verlander said. "I think this is No. 1. The two no-hitters are obviously up there, but that's something a little bit different.
"This is a win or go home, my team needs me."
Rarely has his team needed him as much as it did over these past few grinding weeks, when the Tigers were in danger of not even qualifying for the playoffs.
What it did was bring out the best in Verlander. Watching him pitch over these past few weeks, this was a guy who could smell the champagne, and realized he needed to blaze a path toward tasting it.
"That's why he's got the Cy Young and the MVP," Fielder said. "The hardware speaks for itself.
Over his past six starts, including Thursday, he is 6-0 with an 0.61 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 44 innings pitched.
In winning both Games 1 and 5 against the A's, Verlander became the first pitcher in Tigers franchise history to produce multiple 10-plus strikeout games in one postseason series. In the two games against the A's, he went 2-0 with an 0.56 ERA.
"He's always tough," Athletics outfielder Coco Crisp said. "You battle the best you can.
"Today, he had some of his best stuff of the year."
In firing a complete-game four-hitter, Verlander allowed only two Athletics as far as second base all night. No Oakland player reached third.
He threw 122 pitches, 83 for strikes. He wound up striking out 22 Athletics in his two starts in this series. He became the fifth pitcher to start a decisive playoff game the season after winning a Cy Young award, and the first of the five to win that playoff game. The other four who won the Cy but lost the winner-take-all playoff game the following year: Steve Carlton (1981 Phillies), David Cone (1995 Yankees), Barry Zito (2003 Athletics) and Roy Halladay (2011 Phillies).
We're talking about the best pitcher working today, which is why it was a little odd when someone asked Verlander afterward if he thought he took the "next step" as a pitcher.
"I don't know," Verlander said. "I feel like I've continued to make strides toward becoming a better pitcher since I got in the league."
Hint: From here, Verlander would walk on the moon if he advances another step. Holy Dom Perignon.
So it's on to face the Yankees, again, or maybe the Orioles ... whomever emerges from that marathon of extra-inning games and Alex Rodriguez drama. The Tigers flew back to Detroit overnight Thursday, were scheduled to land in Michigan around 7:45 or 8 a.m. and then, like everyone else, they will sit back and watch Game 5 in New York.
But unlike anybody else, they've got their ALCS ticket punched. Baltimore wins, the Tigers will stay home and play host to the Orioles in Game 1 on Saturday. The Yankees win, Detroit will scurry on back to the airport late Friday night and fly to New York for Game 1 there on Saturday.
The only negative from Verlander pitching Game 5 in Oakland is that he won't be available to start Game 1. But he's set up to start Games 3 and 7 in the ALCS, which is pretty good.
Yes, what a difference a day makes ... especially when it's Verlander's day to pitch.
"I knew he had his stuff," Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson said. "When you're going into pressure situations like this, there's nobody better to have on the mound than Justin."