Verlander proves he's king of the hill

Sometimes a playoff series comes down to a blooper here and there, or that one extra clutch hit, or maybe a key managerial move or a critical injury.

And sometimes it comes down to which team has the best player.

With all due respect to Miguel Cabrera, the most valuable player on the Detroit Tigers is still Justin Verlander. He may not win the Cy Young Award again this season, but he remains the best pitcher on the planet, the guy any manager would want out there in what I call an ultimate game: Win and advance, lose and hit the golf course.

He struck out the first two batters of the game, struck out another in the second and another in the third. Through three innings he had thrown 44 pitches, 28 for strikes, which put him on pace for 132 for nine innings. The A’s tried to work the count and make him run up his pitch count, but you had to figure Verlander would go 140 pitches, maybe 150, if he had to.

When the Tigers scored twice in the third inning off rookie Jarrod Parker, you had the feeling even then it would be a tough night for the A’s, no matter how loudly their fans cheered and waved towels and chanted like they were European soccer fans.

When the Tigers scored four runs in the seventh to put the game away with a 6-0 lead, it was just a matter of how quickly Verlander could chew out the remaining seven outs. He had two strikeouts in the seventh and got Coco Crisp to ground out with two on in the eighth, the last gasp of breath in Oakland’s magical season.

Verlander had 112 pitches and a six-run lead entering the final inning. Take him out? Don’t waste an inning before his next start? Are you kidding? The Detroit bullpen was busy reading labels on champagne bottles, not getting loose just in case. As Seth Smith’s final groundball rolled towards second baseman Omar Infante, Verlander raised his arms high over his head, the picture of triumph, the picture of dominance.

He finished with 122 pitches, just four hits allowed and 11 strikeouts -- 22 over his two Division Series starts. He became the first Tigers pitcher to throw a shutout in the postseason since Joe Coleman in the 1972 ALCS.

"It was a bit different here," Verlander said after the on-field celebration in Oakland. "These fans were absolutely amazing. This place is a really tough place to play. ... But we won."

Verlander’s Game Score of 89 was the highest ever in a "sudden death" game. The previous best was Sandy Koufax’s three-hit, 10-strikeout shutout in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, which scored an 88. Checking in at 84 were Chris Carpenter’s three-hit shutout last year against the Phillies and Jack Morris’ 10-inning masterpiece in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Ralph Terry scored an 83 in the 1962 World Series Game 7, while Cliff Lee (2010 ALDS) and John Smoltz (1991 NLCS) scored 82s. The only others at 80: Orel Hershiser (1988 NLCS), Bob Gibson (1967 World Series) and Dizzy Dean (1934 World Series).

The biggest question as they move on: How much does it hurt the Tigers having to use Verlander in this game instead of wrapping it up in Game 4 so he could start the first game of the ALCS? The ALCS starts Saturday (in New York if the Yankees win, in Detroit if the Orioles win), so Verlander won’t be ready to start until Game 3. Unless he started a Game 6 on three days’ rest, that means he would get just one start in the series unless it goes seven games.

Since the Division Series round was added in 1995, 17 teams advanced after winning their Division Series in five games. Seven of those 17 teams reached the World Series (although two did so by defeating another team that had required five games to advance). Three of those teams went on to win the World Series -- the 2000 Yankees (a team with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Orlando Hernandez and Denny Neagle in its rotation), the 2001 Diamondbacks (Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson) and the 2012 Cardinals (Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter started their three series openers). Those teams did all have multiple weapons or at least rotation depth.

There’s only one Verlander, but the rest of the Detroit rotation is very good -- Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Verlander ranked third, fourth and fifth in the American League in ERA in the second half. It’s not a one-man pitching staff. Plus, if the Yankees advance, they will be in the same situation, having used CC Sabathia in their own Game 5. The Orioles don’t really have a No. 1 anyway. So, yes, of course you’d like Verlander lined up to start Game 1; on the other hand, if the Tigers win the ALCS in six games, Verlander would be lined up to start the World Series opener.

How’s that sound, Tigers fans?