OAKLAND — The team that made a delirious campaign out of overcoming adversity finally found an obstacle it couldn't clear. His name is Justin Verlander, and he's the best pitcher in baseball.
Verlander took the air out of the resilient A's at O.co Coliseum on Thursday, painting the knees with sizzling fastballs, dropping curves and sliders onto the paint, and keeping everyone off-balance with an unfair changeup in decisive Game 5 of this American League division series. He threw a complete-game shutout, allowing just four hits and a single walk, and striking out 11 in the Detroit Tigers' 6-0 victory.
"When Verlander gets on a roll like he was today, especially when he gets into his rhythm, you get into the middle innings and he's rolling along pretty good, it's tough to stop him," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "It's like a locomotive going at a high speed."
The Athletics captivated baseball fans everywhere with their dramatic finishes this year. But down by a couple, then a bunch, their only walk-off Thursday was a slow trudge off the diamond. They re-emerged from the dugout to tip their caps to the 36,393 fans who cheered them to the final out, a grounder to second base by Seth Smith, and the boos raining down on the celebrating Tigers quickly turned to cheers and chants of "Let's go, Oakland!"
Even the Tigers came over to acknowledge the A's, whose 25-man roster included 12 rookies.
Verlander began this series by surrendering a leadoff home run to Coco Crisp last Saturday. It proved to be a tease for the A's. The pitcher went seven innings in that game and gave up just two more hits, and in Game 5 he picked up right where he left off.
Judging by his work against the A's, the Detroit ace seems to have regained his place as the game's dominant pitcher. There was no doubt of his status in 2011, when his off-the-charts season — 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 250 strikeouts in 251 innings — won him not just the AL Cy Young award, but the league MVP as well.
This year, he fell to 17-8, though his ERA (2.64) and strikeouts (239) didn't show much drop-off. He's a candidate for more Cy Young hardware, along with the Angels' Jared Weaver, Seattle's Felix Hernandez and Tampa Bay's David Price. After Thursday, it's hard to imagine any of those guys being better than Verlander. Ask Oakland shortstop Stephen Drew, who struck out four times Thursday.
Verlander threw a dazzling variety of pitches, and got all of them over for strikes. He started each of his first four innings with strikeouts, setting the tone against a team that likes to work the pitch count.
"He's got four pitches that he can throw for strikes. He has four pitches that he commands," Alex Avila, Verlander's catcher, said between puffs of a cigar in the champagne-drenched winners' locker room. "That makes it extremely difficult for a hitter. A lot of times as a hitter, when you put a game plan together, you figure out what the pitcher's best pitches are. You try to attack his weaknesses. He doesn't have any."