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Thursday, October 11, 2012
Updated: October 12, 8:48 PM ET
Justin Verlander complete in victory

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

OAKLAND -- Naturally, in this delightfully chaotic, dramatic postseason of backward home-field advantage and last-minute scheduling changes, the Tigers' travel itinerary for the ALCS had to be a little flexible in the minutes after Justin Verlander's 6-0 Game 5 shutout over the Athletics Thursday night.

"We're flying back [Thursday night]," champagne-soaked general manager Dave Dombrowski said as his team celebrated behind a plastic curtain in the clubhouse. "We land around 8 in the morning in Detroit. And then we wait. We won't work out tomorrow. So we watch [Friday] night's game and if Baltimore wins, we stay home, and if New York wins, we get back on the plane around 11:30 at night."

Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander fanned 22 batters and allowed just one earned run in 16 innings (two starts) in the division series.

Hmmm. That sounds all right but perhaps a better plan would be to leave Oakland and spend Friday on the team plane circling airports all over the country while watching and waiting to see where to land for the ALCS opener Saturday.

"Good afternoon gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Right now, we're flying above Chicago, both literally and figuratively, what with you being in the ALCS while the White Sox wonder how they missed their postseason flight. Guess the TSA agents made them remove that three-game lead along with their shoes.

"As we continue east, we'll experience a little air disturbance over Cincinnati resulting from considerable sports talk radio anger. There is the possibility of baseball-sized hailstones above D.C. when Carlos Beltran or Jayson Werth bat and a slight tropical depression constantly forming and reforming over the Bronx whenever Alex Rodriguez bats.

"So please keep your seatbelts fastened. And remember, there is no smoking allowed. Except for Justin. I don't care what the FAA says. You, sir, can keep right on puffing that victory cigar -- you earned it."

Verlander did indeed. Again. As usual.

After the Tigers lost two games in a row here to stretch the series to the decisive fifth game, Verlander shut out Oakland on four hits while striking out 11 Thursday evening. The Tigers broke open the game with a four-run seventh, but it was pretty much over when Austin Jackson doubled home Omar Infante with the game's first run in the third inning, what with the way Verlander is pitching. Throw in his Game 1 victory and Verlander was 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA and 22 strikeouts.

The shutout was the best postseason start of his career and he said it might be the best of his career, period.

"I think this is No. 1," Verlander said. "The two no-hitters are obviously up there, but that's something a little bit different. This was '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."

Justin Verlander
The Tigers return to the ALCS for the second straight year.

Interestingly, manager Jim Leyland left him in to pitch the ninth despite a pitch count of 111 entering the inning, and he wound up throwing 122 pitches. Verlander won't be available to pitch in the ALCS until Game 3 on Tuesday, so either the Yankees or the Orioles should send the Athletics a case of champagne for forcing him to pitch Game 5 in the division series.

Fittingly, the Coliseum crowd that has had so little to cheer in recent years gave the Athletics a long and loud standing ovation after the final out. Picked by many to finish last and possibly lose 100 games (or more) when their season started in Japan way back in March, the team with the majors' lowest payroll somehow overcame a season-ending knee injury to their third baseman, brain surgery to their ace pitcher and a 13-game deficit when July started to beat out the Rangers and the Angels for the AL West title.

"This coaching staff and the 25 guys-plus single-handedly brought baseball back to Oakland," Jonny Gomes said. "There are going to be some people keeping that Oakland A's cap tight throughout our offseason."

Detroit fans had much higher expectations than Oakland entering this season after the Tigers went to the ALCS last year and signed Prince Fielder in the offseason. But the Tigers struggled for a large stretch of the season before finally jelling in September when Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown and they rallied to overtake the White Sox.

"I felt like we should have been better," Verlander said. "We were inconsistent. We were an inconsistent team during the season, but we never let ourselves fall out of it. And coming down the stretch I think you found out what kind of team this is. When we had to win, we did. …

"That's why we play 162 games. It's a long season, it's a grind. And we ended up where we wanted to end up, and that's in first place. And we ended up playing our best baseball to get there. I think the team playing the best baseball going into the postseason is the most dangerous."

Now they just have to figure out where to go from here.