OAKLAND -- Supposedly, this was a down year for Justin Verlander.
The Tigers right-hander, who blanked the A's over 15 innings in two games against the A's in the American League Divisional Series, including Thursday's 3-0 Game 5 win at O.co Coliseum, posted a 3.46 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in the regular season.
Critics said the former AL Cy Young Award winner and AL MVP wasn't as sharp as when he dominated in this same position one year ago, tossing a shutout with 11 strikeouts to end the A's season in Game 5 of the ALDS.
And technically, that's true. Verlander threw only eight shutout innings this time around and struck out just 10 instead of 11. In that way, yes, this was a down year.
But the A's are unlikely to see this as an improvement over last season after being held hitless for the first 6 2/3 innings. The results, in the end, are the same. Oakland's season is done after one round and Verlander is very much to blame.
"We were just trying to get him in the stretch," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "We just weren't able to get any consistency going, except the last inning where if we ran into one, we could potentially tie the game."
Verlander hasn't allowed a run to the A's in 30 postseason innings -- the longest postseason streak for a starter against any one team in Major League history. Seven scoreless from Verlander in Game 2 wasn't enough for the Tigers, who were blanked over eight innings by rookie Sonny Gray before Oakland pulled out a walk-off win in the ninth. But Verlander prevailed in the rematch against Gray, who faltered as Verlander seemed to gain strength with every passing inning.
"He had a little extra life on his fastball tonight," catcher Stephen Vogt said of Verlander. "Whether he was fired up for Game 5 or what, I don't know. He was outstanding tonight."
Vogt credited Verlander's ability to mix his pitches and paint the corners, just as he did in Game 2, while Jed Lowrie focused on the veteran righty's use of complimentary pitches. The threat of Verlander's curveball, Josh Donaldson agreed, proves challenging to a hitter against a pitcher who throws in the upper 90s, as Verlander does.
"He changes speeds better than anybody in the game, by far," Vogt said. "That's what makes him so effective. He's got 97, 98 in the tank whenever he wants it. But the way he pitches, he doesn't just want to blow it by you. He wants to pitch. And that's what's so difficult."
Detroit scored all three of its runs well before Verlander yielded his first hit -- a soft single up the middle by Yoenis Cespedes with two outs in the seventh. Verlander had walked just one before the hit, a free pass in the sixth to Josh Reddick, who recorded the only other hit against Verlander with two outs in the eighth.
The rest of the A's order went down, seemingly with ease every time. It may not have showed earlier in the season, but Verlander is in top form when the Tigers need him most. Unfortunately for the A's, and the rest of baseball, his down year appears to be over.
"I'm pitching the way I'm supposed to," Verlander said. "I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year."
Jeff Kirshman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less