DETROIT — Justin Verlander didn’t have his best stuff at the start Saturday evening.
He surrendered a home run to Oakland leadoff hitter Coco Crisp, who came into the game with 22 career at-bats against Verlander and a .364 average to show for it. It would be stunning to learn that anyone has done better.
But Verlander was strictly average for four-plus innings, walking three early, holding his breath on a couple long and loud outs, watching his pitch count creep higher and higher.
Then Justin Verlander, struggling righty, turned into Justin Verlander, the reigning and perhaps soon-to-repeat Cy Young Award winner.
And the Tigers turned into the team that might just have more pitching than any opponent, be it the A’s or the O’s or the Y’s, can handle in a short series.
The Tigers took a 3-1 win in the opener of their best-of-five American League Division Series against the A’s. The Orioles and Yankees open their set today with the winners of both to collide for the AL championship.
Verlander surrendered a leadoff single in the fifth to the No. 9 hitter, Cliff Pennington, who was 0 for 14 lifetime against the Tigers’ starter to that point. Verlander scowled over at first for an instant, and it was as if he flipped the enough-is-enough switch and, sure enough, enough was enough.
Crisp lined out to left for the first out of the inning and then Verlander struck out six of the next seven batters, including all three A’s in the sixth and the first two in the seventh. He dialed up a batch of 97 and 98-mph fastballs, changed speed on a couple, had every batter who took a called third strike getting in umpire Jim Reynolds’ face, and had every batter who didn’t just swinging at air.
“I think we got a little frustrated, yeah,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said of the rash of strikeouts.
The middle of the Oakland order — Nos. 4, 5 and 6 — combined for nine of the A’s 14 strikeouts. Verlander notched 11 before Joaquin Benoit got one to end the eighth inning and closer Jose Valverde opened the ninth with two straight Ks.
If the A’s were going to get to Verlander it had to be done early. He was seven full days between starts and out of synch, according to manager Jim Leyland. His fastball was running, and his off-speed stuff was so far out of the strike zone that the A’s weren’t even tempted.
“Early on, I didn’t have great control with really any of my pitches,” Verlander agreed. “But after Coco, I got some key outs. Four walks is inexcusable, but I got outs to leave guys on base. Finally, I was able to execute and throw some quality pitches.”
The last time Verlander faced Oakland they took a lot of pitches, fouled off a bunch, and worked him deep into counts. Melvin thought they were accomplishing the same thing when Verlander’s pitch count reached 60 after three innings, 78 after four, and 91 through five frames.
But Verlander said he wasn’t paying any attention.
“They’re known for that and they did it to me the last time, but I really don’t think about that in the postseason,” he said. “Yeah, [the pitch count] was elevated early, but all I concentrated on was getting outs, not how many pitches it was taking me to do it. I didn’t focus on being economic. I was just trying to be aggressive and find the strike zone.”
When he did it was all but over. And when Alex Avila powered an opposite-field homer leading off the bottom of the fifth, it gave Verlander a little margin for error, and he got even tougher with the ability to challenge Oakland’s power-hitting lefties knowing a solo shot couldn’t tie the game.
“And I found my rhythm a little bit and hit my spots better,” he said.
The outcome certainly hit the spot for the Tigers, who will come back today with Doug Fister and have Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, who joined Verlander with 200-plus strikeouts this season, in reserve for starts on the road.
That’s a lot of quality pitching — Detroit was third in the league in ERA while averaging 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings — getting through to the late innings and a pretty good bullpen.
That may prove to be too much for an A’s team that managed only four hits Saturday night after somehow winning the AL West with a paltry .238 team batting average.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.