DETROIT — Justin Verlander threw a fastball that caught a bit too much of the plate, allowing Oakland’s Coco Crisp to lead off the game with a stunning home run.
For the first few innings, Verlander labored, his pitch count rising while his control deserted him. But the Athletics could manage only that one run, missing their best chance of the night to break through against Detroit’s hard-throwing ace.
Verlander held Oakland scoreless after his early slip, and Alex Avila homered in the fifth inning to lift the Tigers over the Athletics 3-1 Saturday night in the opener of their best-of-five AL playoff. Verlander allowed three hits in seven innings and matched his postseason high with 11 strikeouts.
“Early on was kind of a bit of a battle for me,” Verlander said. “Just kind of found my rhythm a little bit and was able to hit my spots better, and I started throwing my breaking ball for strikes a little bit better too.”
As usual, he seemed stronger in the later innings, striking out the side in the sixth and the first two hitters of the seventh.
“Early on, didn’t have great control of any of my pitches,” Verlander said. “But I was able to get myself out of jams that I created.”
Joaquin Benoit pitched the eighth and Jose Valverde struck out two in a perfect ninth for the save. Oakland’s Jarrod Parker allowed two earned runs in 6 1-3 innings and took the loss.
Game 2 is Sunday, with Doug Fister taking the mound for Detroit and left-hander Tommy Milone for Oakland. Then the series shifts to the West Coast.
“It’s always important to get Game 1. The way it is now, obviously, it’s nice starting here but to play the last three games in Oakland is definitely tough,” Avila said. “Every game’s important, but it felt real good to get one out of the way.”
It was only the second victory for Detroit in its last seven postseason series openers. The Tigers lost Game 1 to the Yankees in the division series last year before winning in five. Detroit then lost the opener of the AL championship series to Texas.
After winning their final six games to take the AL West in shocking fashion, the A’s made their presence felt right away in Detroit. The home crowd at Comerica Park greeted Verlander with a roar and a sea of twirling white towels when he popped out of the dugout and headed to the mound to start the game, but Crisp was unfazed. He pulled Verlander’s two-strike pitch just inside the pole in right field to put Oakland on top.
“He made a mistake to the first batter of the game, and then he didn’t make another one all night,” A’s first baseman Brandon Moss said, exaggerating only slightly.
Verlander had two starts cut short early by bad weather in last year’s postseason. It was 49 degrees — but dry — at game time Saturday.
The AL Central-champion Tigers, in consecutive postseasons for the first time since 1934-35, tied it in their half of the first. Austin Jackson’s hard-hit ball deflected off diving shortstop Stephen Drew and into short left field. The Detroit leadoff man ended up with a double and went to third when Quintin Berry slapped a single to third off Josh Donaldson, who also could only get a piece of the ball while diving for it.
Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, who went 0 for 3 with a walk, grounded into a double play, but Jackson came home to make it 1-all.
Drew finally made a diving play in the second, sprawling to his right on Delmon Young’s grounder and then throwing to first for the out. At the plate, the A’s made Verlander work, forcing him to throw 61 pitches in the first three innings. Verlander struck out Moss to end the Oakland third with a 99 mph fastball — but Verlander was having to reach back for extra velocity early.
“Most good starters, you try to get to them before they get into their rhythm,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “He got better as the game went along. A lot of times your best opportunity is early in the game.”
The Athletics tied a postseason record by starting four rookies — Parker, Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes and Derek Norris.
Parker looked sharp early but allowed another run in the third because of a fielding mishap. With two out and a man on second, Berry chopped a soft grounder to the right side. Parker came off the mound to field it, but with the speedy Berry hustling to first, Parker lost control of the ball while scooping at it with his glove for an error that allowed Omar Infante to score.
“He wasn’t trying to flip it, because he was closer to the bag than I was,” first baseman Brandon Moss said. “He was just trying to grab it and it came out of his glove.”
Avila’s solo shot made it 3-1, and the A’s couldn’t take advantage of Verlander’s rising pitch count.
“In the postseason you don’t go out there and think about pitch count and keeping it low,” Verlander said. “I’m just going to be aggressive, try to find the strike zone and throw quality strikes, and the pitch count will take care of itself.”
Verlander led the majors in strikeouts for the second straight year, and Oakland was baseball’s most strikeout-prone team. It showed toward the end of Verlander’s outing.
After taking a called third strike for the third out of the sixth — Verlander’s fourth strikeout in a five-hitter span — Donaldson chirped a bit at plate umpire Jim Reynolds. Verlander was done after one more inning, finishing with 121 pitches and his fourth career postseason win.
Verlander walked four.
“We battled him hard, but it doesn’t even seem to matter how many pitches that guy throws,” Oakland outfielder Josh Reddick said. “He just keeps coming after you with all of those pitches.”
Benoit allowed a single in the eighth, followed by a flyout by Moss that Andy Dirks caught at the wall in right field.
“I didn’t think it was gone,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “I thought he just missed it. And he did just miss it.”
Oakland right-hander Pat Neshek, whose newborn son died 23 hours after his birth, came on to relieve Parker in the seventh. He entered with two on and one out but got out of the inning without any scoring.
Oakland wore patches with the initials GJN. Neshek’s son’s name was Gehrig John Neshek.
“It was really tough warming up, and I thought about him the entire time. I said yesterday that baseball would be a way to clear my mind, but that didn’t happen. He was always there,” Neshek said. “I know it is a cliche, but I really felt like I had someone watching me and helping with that last pitch. That was my best slider of the year.”
NOTES: Parker allowed seven hits. He struck out five and walked one. … Crisp was 8 for 22 off Verlander entering but with no homers. … Cabrera received chants of “MVP” from the fans when he was announced before the game. Oakland 3B Brandon Inge — a former Tiger — was also cheered. … Moss struck out three times. … Arizona started four rookies three times in the 2007 postseason, according to STATS, LLC. … Verlander also struck out 11 against the Yankees in last year’s division series.