By Ashley Dunkak
Fans yelled and screamed at him as he walked by on his way from the dugout to the pitching mound each inning. They held up giant cardboard heads with photos of his (possible) model ex-girlfriend Kate Upton. They faithfully kept up a raucous chant of “Let’s go Oakland!”
To be sure, the A’s crowd wanted nothing more than a collapse by Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Instead, Verlander shut down the A’s just like he has so many times in the past.
Verlander pitched eight scoreless innings, sealing Oakland’s fate and sending the Tigers hurtling into the ALCS.
Doing it all in front of angry A’s fans seemed to make it all the better for Verlander.
“The environment has a lot to do with it,” Verlander said. “It’s very hostile and it’s a lot of fun, really, to be on the mound. Everybody in the ballpark, 50,000 are rooting against me, and yelling as loud as they can. That’s fun for me. I enjoy that. I enjoy it just as much as being at home and having that atmosphere as well. You thrive off of it.
“At one point they were chanting, ‘Let’s go Oakland,’” Verlander added, “and in my head, every time that they said ‘Oakland,’ I said ‘Tigers.’”
While Verlander certainly proved up to the challenge, he said he would have liked to have responded to some comments from A’s fans.
“When I come back down and this ballpark is unique the way you have to walk by the fans to go out to the field, so I’m walking by the fans and they’re yelling as much stuff as they can at me,” Verlander said. “There were two or three in particular that I can remember.
“I wish I could have gone back out there in the ninth,” he continued, “and walked by them one more time and maybe said something.”
Thursday night, though, his actions sent enough of a message.
Verlander used his fastball early and often, but his other pitches – change-up, curveball and slider – also worked very well.
“When this guy has it going, he pitches well against everybody,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. “When you’ve got four pitches above average and a couple of them really above average, you can shut down a lot of teams.”
The fastball in particular, though, worked wickedly well.
“In the first or second inning, I noticed it had good life and guys were swinging at it and wanted to go with it,” Verlander said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“I was going to make those guys show they could do something with the fastball before I went to other stuff,” Verlander continued. “Obviously I’m not going to throw 100% fastballs, you gotta keep guys off balance. When I needed a big pitch, that’s what I went to because of the results I was having. This is a game of adjustments and you make adjustments in the game.”
Almost a year ago to the day, Verlander helped end Oakland’s season in nearly the same way last year as he pitched a nine-inning shutout against the A’s in Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS. Thursday he also exactly replicated that feat, even taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning.
After the no-no was broken up, a complete game was still a possibility, but Leyland’s decision to replace Verlander with closer Joaquin Benoit in the ninth inning was not a particularly difficult one.
“[Verlander] was really tired after the eighth, and felt like he could go back out, but I said, ‘No, you’re not going back out,’” Leyland said. “He felt like he could probably go out but couldn’t get out of a jam, and I said, ‘I’m not going to do that to my closer, you’re done.’
“He was good about it,” Leyland added. “It was the right move.”
Verlander’s dominant form during Game 5 reminded everyone of his masterful 2011 and 2012 seasons, pushing away the more recent memories of an inconsistent and – by Verlander’s standards – a subpar 2013.
Regular season aside, though, it appears that Verlander got his act together right in time.
“He’s getting downhill now,” Leyland said. “He’s back in a really good rhythm. I think it was a lot to his mechanic thing that he talked about. I didn’t know much about it. He’s gotten mechanically back in sync, got all his pitches.
“He was locked in tonight,” Leyland added. “This was a big challenge for him. He did it here last year, he’s done it on several occasions for us, and he did it once again.”