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ALDS 2012: Justin Verlander Takes Charge of Tigers' Title Hopes with Game 5 Win

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ALDS 2012: Justin Verlander Takes Charge of Tigers' Title Hopes with Game 5 Win

Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander had the wins. He had the All-Star appearances. He had two no-hitters. He had a Cy Young. He even had an MVP.

Shoot, he had it all, really.

Except, of course, for the October accolades. Verlander entered this year's playoffs with a record of 3-3 and a 5.57 ERA in eight (seven, if you don't count rain-delayed outings) career postseason starts, unspectacular figures for a pitcher of his stature. You'd expect better from a guy with 78 wins and a 2.95 ERA to his name over the last four regular seasons.

In the American League Division Series against the Oakland A's, Verlander delivered the better. A whole bunch of it, in fact.

Just as he did in Game 1 of the series in Detroit, Verlander had his way with the A’s in Game 5 of the ALDS, pitching the Tigers to a nice and tidy 6-0 win with a complete-game shutout that saw him surrender only four hits and a walk while striking out 11. It took him 122 pitches to finish the job, with the final out being a harmless ground ball to second base off the bat of A's cleanup man Seth Smith.

After the final out was secured, you could hear Verlander's cry of glee all the way up in the press box, and he soon found himself front and center in Detroit's on-field celebration. With their star right-hander in the middle of the mob, the Tigers trampled the very field that they sought to trample roughly 24 hours earlier before their season was put on the brink by the A's and their seemingly limitless magic.

Game 5 ALDS highlights.

So, Mr. Verlander, where does Game 5 rank on your list of personal accomplishments?

"I think this is No. 1," said Verlander. "The two no-hitters are obviously up there, but that's something a little different. This is win or go home, my team needs me. And I was able to go out there and have one of the better performances I've had."

Verlander earned two of the Tigers' three wins in their series against the A's, a club that went 51-25 in the second half of the season while leading the American League in runs scored and homers. The only run he allowed in his 16 innings of work came courtesy of a solo home run by the very first batter he faced in Game 1: A's center fielder and Game 4 hero Coco Crisp.

After that, the A's got nothing. Along the way, Verlander piled up 22 strikeouts, a new ALDS record.

In Game 5, Verlander was in complete control from the moment he threw his first pitch. It was evident right away that he didn’t just want to beat the A's. He wanted to punish them.

Instead of sitting at 91 and 92 in the early innings, Verlander was throwing 94 and 95. His fastball started brushing up against the 100-mph mark—a number he tends to flirt with later on in games when he needs a little extra oomph—before the game was even halfway in the books.

When Verlander was on the bump, O.co Coliseum's typically raucous crowd found itself with little to cheer for. You couldn't necessarily hear a pin drop in the Coliseum, but you could certainly hear Verlander's fastballs popping Alex Avila's mitt like distant gunfire.

"Our crowd was looking for just about anything," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "A walk, a three-ball count. They were looking for anything to pick us up and try to help us out, which we've seen here for the better part of the last couple of weeks, and certainly at the end of the season and in the postseason."

You could tell that the crowd knew what was going on as the game got closer and closer to the ninth inning. So did Melvin. He knew that Justin Verlander was doing his Justin Verlander thing.

"It's like a locomotive going at high speed," said Melvin of Oakland's Game 5 nemesis.

Melvin saw a train going screaming down the rails when he looked out to the mound. His opposite number saw a man with a purpose.

Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
This is Verlander's complete-game look. Scary, huh?

"He had that look in his eyes today," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland of his 29-year-old ace. "He was determined. He had a complete-game look in his eye. And we were thankful to get that."

Judging from the way he handled his bullpen, it never crossed Leyland's mind that Verlander wouldn't go all the way. No Tigers reliever threw even a single warmup pitch on Thursday night. For that matter, nobody even moved. 

The decision not to get anybody up could have gone horribly awry. Though the Tigers had a 6-0 lead and Verlander was in absolute control of the game, he entered the ninth inning with a pitch count of 111. If he ran into trouble, the Tigers were going to be in trouble.

Whatever concerns there were disappeared in the blink of an eye. Verlander needed just 11 more pitches to finish the A's off, and then he went and took a champagne shower. He entered the interview room after the game still soaked in champagne, but also with a huge grin on his face.

"It was awesome and horrible at the same time," he quipped about his champagne shower.

He then added: "Having your teammates around you and dumping champagne on you is a feeling I'll never forget and something I'll take with me forever."

Verlander has done the whole champagne celebration thing before, of course. But not like this. This time, it was all about him.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
For ballplayers, this is what happiness looks like.

And rightfully so. The Tigers would not have had a chance of beating the A's without him, and there surely must have been some souls in the swarm of gray and orange who knew that Verlander had just walked up to his postseason demons, such as they were, and punched them directly in the face.

But what about the man himself? Did he feel like he had turned some kind of personal corner with his performances in the ALDS?

"Tough to say...I feel like I've continued to make strides towards becoming a better pitcher since I got in the league, and that's been my goal," Verlander said.

Strides, you say? What sort of strides?

"Just having experience and pitching in big games and pitching in the postseason allowed me not to let my adrenaline get the best of me. It had the reverse effect; it allowed me to use that to my ability and get some guys out."

Translation: He knows what to do in October now. More specifically, he knows what not to do.

Some players are naturally immune to the throes of October. You immediately think of the great ones like Derek Jeter and former Tiger Jack Morris, who had thrown Detroit's last postseason complete game back in 1984 before Verlander went the distance on Thursday night.

He doesn't have the hardware yet, but Verlander has joined their company in terms of the mentality that it takes to dominate in October. He earned his postseason stripes with his two performances against the A's, and he spoke like a man who is now wearing these stripes quite proudly.

This is a frightening development for the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees, who have one more game left in their battle for the right to face Verlander and the Tigers in the American League Championship Series. They already knew Verlander was the best pitcher in the American League. Now they know he has ice water in his veins, fire in his heart, ironclad confidence and other such things that allow a pitcher to succeed in the month of October.

With him leading the way, the Tigers should keep chugging along for a while longer. For now, we know that he'll be able to go on full rest in Game 3 of the ALCS, and again in Game 7 if the series happens to last that long. 

Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
The numbers are great. Just as amazing is how easy Verlander made it look.

Go ahead and imagine that for a second. Verlander just toed the rubber in an elimination game, and he produced a shutout with 11 strikeouts. Per ESPN Stats & Info, he's the first pitcher to ever pitch a shutout with as many as 11 punch-outs in an elimination game, and he did it against a dangerous offense.

There's absolutely no reason to think Verlander couldn't do something similar in a Game 7. None. If he finds himself in a Game 7, the Tigers will surely find themselves in the World Series a short while later.

Verlander really is that sure of a bet after what he just pulled off. Whatever question marks were hanging over his head as recently as this past Saturday are gone. He is free to move forward unencumbered by doubt, and he has the horsepower to take the Tigers wherever he wants to go. 

And we all know where he wants to go—and what he wants when he gets there.

He wants to go to the World Series, and he wants a ring.

There are clubs out there that can stand in the Tigers' way, to be sure. The Orioles are a darn good club, and a very resilient one to boot. The Yankees are the Yankees. The St. Louis Cardinals are the reigning champs. The Washington Nationals are overloaded with talent. The San Francisco Giants just pulled off one of the great comebacks in postseason history against a truly excellent team.

But in Verlander's way?

Well, let's just say in his way is not a good place to be right now.

 

Note: Quotes obtained firsthand. Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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