OAKLAND, Calif. – It’s Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray, the encore.
These decisive Game 5s sure are becoming familiar for Verlander. Not so much for the Oakland rookie.
Just like last October in Oakland, the Tigers have been pushed to a winner-take-all fifth game in their AL division series against the Athletics. And Detroit will have Verlander on the mound again Thursday night after he pitched a four-hit shutout in the 2012 clincher at the Oakland Coliseum.
“Well, you don’t pretend. It’s not just another game,” Verlander said after the Tigers evened the series with an 8-6 win Tuesday at Comerica Park. “The season is on the line. It was on the line for us tonight, too. This whole season, the way we battled and played as a team, comes down to one game, may the best team win. You can’t treat it just like another game. It’s a little bit different. There is more to it.”
The A’s will counter with Gray against Verlander a second time after these two put on a pitching show Saturday night at the Coliseum.
“He’s a little bit of a bulldog, he’s scared of nothing,” manager Bob Melvin said, noting Gray’s experience on the big stage just last week. “Everything that went on in that game factored into it. ... When he came up, we were into the season and a pennant race already and we threw him right into the fire and right away he pitched very well with a lot of confidence and always has that mound presence.”
Melvin said he doesn’t know how he might use, if at all, 18-game winner and Game 1 loser Bartolo Colon, who is “willing to do anything.” He hasn’t been ruled out as a reliever.
“Obviously we had two great options,” Melvin said.
Verlander dominated in a thrilling pitcher’s duel with Gray, who matched the ace as each threw zeros but had nothing to show for it in a 1-0 A’s win.
“I’m not really sure we liked what we saw, it was pretty good,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Gray. “At least we’ve seen him now.”
Verlander is riding a 22-inning postseason scoreless streak against the A’s, and has 33 strikeouts over the past three playoff matchups with Oakland, 11 in each outing.
Not that the A’s are counting.
“He’s been beaten before, it can happen again,” third baseman Josh Donaldson said.
Verlander acknowledged it would have been great to pitch the playoff opener, while also noting 21-game winner Max Scherzer more than earned the nod. Now, Verlander gets the ball for his most meaningful start this year – to extend the season Thursday night.
“We all have a lot of confidence, we’re playing at home, we know what we’re up against in Verlander,” A’s shortstop Jed Lowrie said. “We’re all prepared for one, winner-take-all scenario.”
With Scherzer pitching in relief Tuesday, Verlander became the automatic Game 5 choice for manager Jim Leyland.
“That’s kind of why we pitched him Game 2 so we’d have an option,” Leyland said. “We were in a pretty good comfort zone to pitch Verlander if necessary, and it was necessary because we had to win (Tuesday). We’re comfortable any time Verlander goes out there.”
Both clubs chose to use Wednesday as a full day off without on-field workouts after two long flights in four days.
Who to start was quite a choice for 2012 AL Manager of the Year Melvin, whose team is trying to avoid having the season end at the hands of Detroit for the third time in as many postseasons — last year and also a four-game sweep by the Tigers in the 2006 AL championship series.
The last time the A’s won a winner-take-all postseason game was in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series against the New York Mets. Oakland has lost its last five Game 5s in the AL division series since 2000.
The AL West champion A’s know what’s at stake – and realize full well the challenge of facing Verlander again. Last fall’s frustrating finish is still fresh for everybody.
“We feel like this time we have a better chance to turn the tide,” Melvin said. “It’s awfully tough to go out there each and every time and consistently beat a team in the fashion that he has with us.”
Verlander has hardly had the kind of dominant season like he had the past two years, including 2011 when he won both AL MVP and Cy Young Award honors. Yet that hardly affected Leyland’s decision-making as he insisted Verlander’s 13-12 record was hardly indicative of how well he pitched much of the season aside from a couple of rough stretches.
Oakland rookie Stephen Vogt delivered a walk-off single in Saturday’s win once Verlander was out of the game. But he also had a wild 10-pitch at-bat with Verlander in which the left-handed hitting catcher fouled off the first five pitches and seven in all before striking out to end the seventh.
“We can expect pretty much what we saw from him the other night. Hopefully he makes a couple mistakes and we’re able to capitalize,” Vogt said. “It’s a tough loss but we’re not done. We still got one more game. We’re not done.”
Neither are those 48,000-plus fans with their swirling yellow rally towels packing the Coliseum. They are sure to be even more hyped up and fiery Thursday night after watching a disputed home run at Comerica Park in Tuesday’s loss. On that play, a pair of fans reached out to grab the ball as right fielder Josh Reddick was leaping for it at the wall. The homer went to replay review and stood as a solo shot for Victor Martinez in the seventh.
“We just do it like we have been doing it all season long, we end up winning a pretty good ballgame and it’s over, turn the page,” Martinez said. “We go to Oakland now and play another game. We all know it’s a tough place to play ... we go to the next day and play a brand new ballgame and see what happens.”