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Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera remind everyone why the Tigers win

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

OAKLAND -- How's the song go again? You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with ... Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.

Two old Tigers came hi-yo-silver streaking to the rescue. Game 5 turned out just like it did here last year. Non-alcoholic champagne (in deference to Cabrera and a handful of kids who were around) soaking the visitors' clubhouse following the 3-0 waltz into the AL Championship Series.

And now, in Detroit, suddenly anything is possible (again).

Cabrera can go deep (again).Verlander can pitch like a Cy Young winner (again).

Boston can be had, the World Series is wide open and summer just got extended.

Gutsy decision by the Athletics to start rookie Sonny Gray, yes. But on this night, for Oakland, it didn't matter who started. Gray, Bartolo Colon, the late, great Catfish Hunter ... take your pick. Verlander made sure that the Athletics' pitching decision was the most uselessly overanalyzed strategic decision of the postseason.

"I've faced him quite a few times, and this is probably the best I've ever seen him," A's third baseman Josh Donaldson said after a three-strikeout night.

"He was being him," Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt said after a two-strikeout night. "Mixing his pitches, throwing his fastball up and down, never coming over the middle of the plate."

"MVP stuff," Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter said, puffing on a cigar in the roaring Tigers clubhouse. "Cy Young, MVP, that's what he is."

Death, taxes and Verlander over the Athletics in the postseason. These are among life's few certainties.

Verlander now has thrown 30 consecutive scoreless innings against the Athletics over the past two postseasons, a record for one pitcher against one team, according to the numbers experts at the Elias Sports Bureau.

And this was the guy the Tigers deemed not good enough to start Game 1!

He carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, finally losing it when Yoenis Cespedes ripped a single past shortstop Jhonny Peralta and into left-center field. Nobody, incidentally, has ever thrown a no-hitter in a clinch game in the postseason. And the only two men ever to throw a no-no in the postseason are Don Larsen (1956 World Series, Game 5 against the Dodgers) and Roy Halladay (2010 NL Division Series, Game 1 against the Reds).

"Yeah, there were thoughts of a no-hitter," Verlander, who already has thrown two, admitted. "I shoved those to the back of my mind."

He wasn't alone. He was so dominant that, yeah, you bet thoughts of a clinching no-no were fluttering around in the back of those Detroit brains like butterflies in a meadow.

"I was trying my best not to think about it, but it was in the back of my mind," Hunter said. "I was definitely thinking about a no-hitter."

"Unbelievable," said Max Scherzer, who is most likely on deck to win this year's AL Cy Young award. "He's the best pitcher in the game. You knew with Game 5 here, he was going to bring it."

By the time Cespedes broke it up, the Tigers led 3-0, with Cabrera's two-run homer in the fourth the only collateral Verlander needed.

It was just like old times. The past two AL MVPs, each of whom has had his own struggles this season, shifting back into overdrive just in time to lead the Tigers to a third consecutive ALCS.

And as well as Boston is playing, this is why the Tigers can beat them.

Battling a groin strain that started in his back, moved into his hip and settled in his groin, Cabrera slammed only his second home run since Aug. 26, and his first pull homer into left since Aug. 25.

Both manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski were saying before the game that they thought their favorite slugger was getting incrementally better by the day. Watching Cabrera blast a baseball over the row of suites in dead center field during batting practice, Dombrowski said he would not be surprised to see Cabrera drill a homer -- or two, even -- Thursday night.

The man knows his hitting. He also knows his juju. Dombrowski came to the park for Game 5 wearing the same green tie and sports jacket he was wearing on Aug. 29 when the Tigers scored three in the bottom of the ninth to stun the Athletics with a walkoff win. And during his daily 35-minute run earlier down the same Embarcadero he jogged in San Francisco during last year's World Series he tweaked his route, hoping for better results.

Turns out, with the ball in Verlander's hand for Game 5, Dombrowski probably could have come to the ballpark dressed in a tiger costume, for all the difference it would have made.

"Justin rises to the occasion," Leyland said in the understatement of the evening. "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 tonight."

When did Verlander begin to lock in?

"When I woke up this morning," he said. "You know a big game is coming. I wake up, and the only thing I'm thinking about is my game plan and visualizing and executing."

Not even a couple of very creative Oakland fans lugging Fatheads of Kate Upton could de-zone Verlander. They held the huge photos aloft behind the Tigers dugout during batting practice, and then paraded them down to the front row of seats next to the Tigers bullpen when Verlander was warming up before the game. The Superhero pitcher and the supermodel were romantically linked last year for a time, and yes, Verlander saw them.

"I did notice that," he said, grinning. "No comment."

It's been an odd year for Verlander, who finished 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA. It was his worst ERA since 2008, and his 218 1/3 innings pitched were his lowest since '08. He was fine physically but felt out of sync mechanically for much of the season. So he chipped away at the problem with a goal of becoming his old self again by September.

Bingo. He posted a 2.27 ERA for the month and took that momentum into the postseason.

"I think it shows how dedicated he is to being a champion," Dombrowski said, adding: "He thought he could salvage a so-so season with a great postseason."

Lucky Oakland.

Now, Boston.

The Tigers won 4 of 7 against the Red Sox in 2013, including 3 of 4 in Comerica Park in June. They went 1-2 at Boston in September, including that crazy 20-4 loss on Sept. 4 during which the Red Sox clubbed eight home runs. Leyland memorably said that night that baseballs were leaving the yard "like ping pong balls."

The Red Sox clinched on Tuesday night, have Jon Lester set for Game 1 of the ALCS and have plenty of options after that. Jake Peavy, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey are all rested and can be arranged according to what the Red Sox think are the best matchups.

After throwing 111 pitches while stiff-arming the Athletics, Verlander won't be available before Game 3 of the ALCS. Co-ace Max Scherzer, following a two-inning relief appearance Tuesday, says he can start Game 1, though Leyland indicated late Thursday that Anibal Sanchez's number will come up.

No, the Tigers won't be as rested as the Red Sox. But if Cabrera and Verlander are returning to their Superhero form -- and Verlander looks like he's there -- then ... look out.

 
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