Tigers ride Justin Verlander back to ALCS

OAKLAND, Calif. — Already an ace and MVP, Justin Verlander proved to be the Detroit Tigers’ ultimate closer, too.

Verlander struck out 11 in a four-hitter, pitching Detroit into a second straight AL championship series a day after Jose Valverde failed to hold a ninth-inning lead with a 6-0 win against the Oakland Athletics in the decisive Game 5 of their division series Thursday night.

Verlander tossed his first career postseason shutout and complete game with a 122-pitch masterpiece.

The Tigers will face either the New York Yankees or Baltimore Orioles, tied at 2 games apiece heading into Game 5 on Friday night in New York. Game 1 of the ALCS is scheduled for Saturday.

Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and MVP, was so sharp nobody in the bullpen ever got up to throw. He struck out 22 in his wins on both ends of this nail-biting series.

After squandering two chances to clinch the series, including blowing a two-run ninth-inning lead in Game 4, manager Jim Leyland left it all up to Verlander just as he said he would.

Austin Jackson hit an RBI double in the third and a run-scoring single as the Tigers added on in a four-run seventh. Prince Fielder hit an RBI single.

The Tigers are on to another ALCS despite getting just one RBI all series from Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera — on a bases-loaded hit by pitch, no less. Booed by the yellow towel-waving sellout crowd of 36,393 each time he stepped into the batter’s box. Cabrera finished 5 for 20, and it was his hard-hit ball dropped by Coco Crisp in a 5-4 Game 2 victory Sunday that allowed two runs to score.

Leyland all but called Verlander’s latest gem.

The Detroit skipper gave the ball to his 17-game winner and said beforehand the Tigers would likely win or lose with the hard-throwing right-hander on the mound.

And, against the A’s, Verlander usually wins.

“I don’t have anybody better than him,” Leyland said. “And if they get to him that much we’ll probably be in trouble. I’m not taking him out, I can assure you of that, because I don’t have anybody better to bring in.”

Verlander became the fifth pitcher to start a winner-take-all playoff game the year after winning the Cy Young — and the first to win. In all four previous instances, that pitcher’s team lost the game: Steve Carlton (1981 Phillies), David Cone (1995 Yankees), Barry Zito (2003 Athletics), and Roy Halladay (2011 Phillies).

Verlander followed up an 11-strikeout outing in Detroit’s 3-1 Game 1 win Saturday at Comerica Park with another overpowering performance in his 10th postseason start. He improved to 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA in three postseason starts against the A’s and also upped his career mark to 5-4 with 2.15 ERA in 10 starts at the Coliseum.

Detroit finally got to party in a visiting clubhouse that for the sixth straight game was prepped for a possible clinch celebration.

The Texas Rangers were in town last week needing one victory to win the AL West but dropped all three to lose the division to the surprising A’s in Game No. 162.

On Wednesday night, plastic covering the floor and lockers was torn down in all of about 40 seconds after Valverde allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth as Oakland won with another walkoff in a season full of them.

The A’s stayed on the field to greet the fans, who were still on their feet well after the final out chanting “Let’s Go Oakland!” Verlander waved toward the A’s players in a classy acknowledgment.

Detroit’s offense did more than enough to give Verlander a cushion on another relatively quiet night by Cabrera and Fielder, the team’s $214 million cleanup hitter.

Oakland’s miscues on the mound only helped matters.

Omar Infante singled to start the third inning against A’s starter Jarrod Parker, then moved to second on a wild pitch. Then, with Cabrera batting after Jackson’s double and a sacrifice by Quintin Berry that moved him up a base, Parker threw another wild pitch that allowed Jackson to score.

In the Tigers’ 5-4 Game 2 win Sunday at Comerica Park, each team scored a run on a wild pitch in the eighth — the first time in postseason history in which both teams scored a tying run on a wild pitch in the same inning, according to STATS LLC.

The upstart A’s were attempting to become the ninth team to rally from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series, but couldn’t match the cross-bay Giants after San Francisco won at Cincinnati earlier in the day to reach the NLCS.

So much for all that chatter about another Bay Bridge World Series in Northern California like the earthquake-interrupted Series in 1989 swept by the A’s.

Oakland struck out 50 times in a series of swings and misses riding high only a week ago after stunning the two-time reigning Al champion Rangers on the regular season’s final day to win the AL West. The Ks were the most in A’s franchise history for a five-game series.

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