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DETROIT — Tigers starter Justin Verlander could not have scripted today’s division series finale more to his liking.
Winner take all. The weight of a city’s massive expectations heaped atop his right shoulder. The chance to quiet another city’s raucous fans.
Really, is there anyone Detroit would rather have pitch tonight’s fifth game in Oakland?
“It’s what you play the game for,” Verlander said. “This is what you dream of as a kid, to be on the mound in a clinching game.”
For the second straight year, the former American League MVP will start a deciding Game 5 at O.co Coliseum — and the Tigers are hoping for a repeat. Last October, Verlander threw a four-hit shutout to eliminate the A’s. Today, he faces rookie Sonny Gray with a chance to do the same.
It is a rematch of Oakland’s thrilling 1-0 win in Game 2, when Verlander was at his October best and the 23-year-old Gray was better. A’s manager Bob Melvin chose Gray, a former first-round draft pick who was 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 10 regular-season starts, over 18-game winner and ace Bartolo Colon.
“You know what to expect a little bit, what the crowd is going to be like,” Verlander said. “It’s going to be fun.”
The planets had to align for the scenario to unfold just so.
After laboring through an uneven season by his standards, Verlander prepared to sign over his previously undisputed role as ace to Max Scherzer. The Tigers’ 21-game winner and Cy Young favorite won Game 1 and was scheduled to start a fifth game if necessary.
But Scherzer was used for two innings of wild relief in a must-win Game 4, placing Verlander back in the role he covets.
History favors the Tigers. Verlander has thrown 22 straight scoreless postseason innings against the A’s, striking out 11 in each of his last starts. Not to mention Oakland has lost its last five Game 5s in the division series since 2000 and failed to win a winner-take-all playoff game since Game 7 of the 1973 World Series against the Mets.
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But baseball rarely plays favorites in October. The A’s are conceding nothing with Gray and, if necessary, the 40-year-old Colon waiting in relief. Gray has a 1.85 ERA in his last seven starts and limited the Tigers to four hits — only one of which left the infield — in Game 2.
“You never want to get too far ahead of yourselves, but you couldn’t help not think about [Gray] in Game 5 given the way he pitched,” Melvin said in announcing his decision Wednesday night. “It’s not like Bartolo has done anything to not warrant not pitching in this game. It’s just that Sonny pitched so well.”
Verlander, meanwhile, was strangely ordinary much of the season, tweaking his mechanics with each passing start. The six-time all-star was 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA.
Asked what happened, Verlander smiled and replied, “Next question.”
“If I could tell you,” he said, “I wouldn’t have had the [struggles].”
Verlander, though, has turned back the clock lately. After three straight scoreless outings dating to the regular season, the ace is confident he’s back.
“I think it’s been some of the adjustments I made,” he said. “Well, one of maybe a thousand that I tried to make this year. It was definitely a grind all year. It reached a point where I realized it was going to take a while. It wasn’t going to be one thing that I had to fix.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a quick process, and I set a date for myself that I needed to be ready at all costs for the postseason. The last month of the season, I think I found some things that really benefited me with my location, just my stuff in general.”