Of the eight teams battling in the division series, there's an argument to be made that the first game is more important to the Detroit Tigers than any other club.
The reason is obvious: The Tigers have Justin Verlander. If you lose the opener, the Tigers have to win two of the next three just to get the ball back to him in Game 5. Win the opener and you have some cushion or, better yet, you close out the series quickly and have Verlander ready to open the American League Championship Series.
The best pitcher in baseball did his job, the Tigers scraped together just enough offense, Brandon Moss' potential game-tying home run in the eighth fell a couple of feet short, and Detroit pulled off a 3-1 victory.
Suddenly, the A's magical season is in jeopardy. They may need to win three in a row to move on.
It wasn't quite as easy for Verlander as his final line indicated. He did strike out 11 in seven innings, but he matched his season-high with four walks and had to throw 121 pitches. But in typical Verlander fashion, he turned up the velocity as the game progressed, blowing 97 and 98 mph fastballs past Seth Smith and Derek Norris in the seventh inning, part of a run of five consecutive strikeouts. After walking Cliff Pennington, Coco Crisp helped Verlander by swinging at a first-pitch changeup, tapping a weak ground ball to first base.
Still, the A's did knock out Verlander after seven innings, which gave them a chance against a Detroit bullpen that loves to walk the tightrope. The Tigers were 72-7 when leading after seven innings, a winning percentage of 91 percent, which sounds impressive but is actually right at the major league average.
Jim Leyland went to Joaquin Benoit, disdaining potential lefty-lefty matchups with Phil Coke against Moss and Josh Reddick. (Bob Melvin would have likely hit for Moss with Chris Carter anyway.) Benoit had a 3.68 ERA in the regular season, but he served up 14 home runs, the second most of any reliever this season (the ancient Livan Hernandez, with 15, was first).
The A's got their chance when Yoenis Cespedes singled and Moss launched a deep fly to right off a hanging changeup. For a moment, it appeared we had a tie game. Instead, Andy Dirks camped under the ball just in front of the wall. Jose Valverde cruised through a two-strikeout ninth inning, and the Tigers had the win.
It could be that the A's just don't match up well with the Tigers. As Joe Sheehan pointed out, how do you beat the Tigers? You put the ball in play against one of the majors' worst defensive clubs. What did the A's do more than any other major league team? Strike out. With 14 strikeouts on this night, Detroit's defense had to record just 13 outs.
For Verlander, it was the best postseason start of his career. In seven previous starts (not counting the rain-shortened one-inning outing against the Yankees in last year's division series), he had allowed at least three runs in each game and owned an unimpressive 5.57 ERA. He was shaky at the start, needing more than 60 pitches to get through the first three innings.
"I was a little out of sync early on," Verlander said, "but was able to get some outs with guys on base and keep the score at one run. ... Then I started to get in a groove later on in the game, find my rhythm and mechanics. Felt the adrenaline got to me early on but was able to rein it in and make some pitches later in the game."
Tigers fans will think this is an insult, but it isn’t meant to be: The A's had the better club over 162 games. But this isn't a 162-game series; it's a five-game series. Oakland's depth advantage on its 25-man roster isn't as important in a short series. The Tigers likely won't need to use their bench much or go deep into their bullpen. They even proved in this game they can win without Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder providing the offense, as those two went 0-for-7 with a walk.
And if the series goes five games, they'll have the big edge on the mound.