OAKLAND, Calif. -- Oakland's Coliseum is laid out in such a way that to get from the clubhouse to the dugout, the players must walk through a narrow passage smack against a section of fans. This is not such a big deal if you make that trip only once or twice. But Justin Verlander walks that passage twice between every inning when he pitches here. Once on his way to the clubhouse after an inning to refocus himself and again when he returns to the field to pitch the next inning.
"So I'm walking by the fans and they're yelling as much stuff at me as they can," he said. "There were two or three in particular who I can remember. I wish I could have gone back there in the ninth and walked by them one more time and maybe said something."
He said enough on the mound. And I don't mean in a Grant Balfour NC-17 way.
One year after shutting out the Athletics in the decisive Game 5 of the 2012 division series, Verlander silenced Oakland again in a 3-0 Game 5 victory Thursday. Facing rookie Sonny Gray for the second time this series, Verlander didn't allow a baserunner until the sixth inning and didn't allow a hit until there were two outs in the seventh. Throwing mid-90s fastballs and low-80s curveballs, he allowed just two hits and struck out 10 in eight innings.
"I wake up and the only thing I'm thinking about is my game plan and visualizing and executing," Verlander said. "Once you get to the park, it goes into a different mode. All the nerves and angst starts to build, and I've been here before, there is nothing you can do about it. You've got to hone it to your advantage"
Verlander remarked how Gray had done that very thing in Game 2 when the Athletics won 1-0. Based on that fine performance, the Athletics opted to start Gray over 40-year-old ace Bartolo Colon in Game 5. Thursday was a lesser shade of Gray, though. He struggled with the command of his fastball and curveball -- he walked four batters and gave up six hits in five innings -- and allowed a decisive two-run homer to Miguel Cabrera in the fourth. He also broke his left thumb fielding a comebacker.
Maybe experience does matter sometimes.
Of course, the Athletics could have started Colon and it would not have mattered given that they needed to score a run to win and Verlander silenced their bats, as well as a crowd of 46,959 fans.
The Oakland fans tried to get to Verlander before Game 5 even began. The former MVP and Cy Young winner reportedly had a relationship with Kate Upton that might or might not have ended this year, so several Oakland fans decided it would be a good idea to taunt the pitcher by holding up large posters of the model while he warmed up in the bullpen down the right-field line. Let's just say it didn't faze him in the slightest.
Did he even notice the Upton posters?
"I did notice," Verlander said. He paused for a moment and a satisfied grin grew across his face. "No comment."
There is no need for a reprisal from Detroit fans. For one thing, the series is over, as is Oakland's season. This is the sixth consecutive time the Athletics have lost the fifth game of a division series and the 12th potential clincher they've lost in a row. More importantly, Verlander must be so deeply rooted in the Athletics' heads that he could only be surgically removed.
In four postseason starts against Oakland, Verlander has allowed just one run and 13 hits in 31 innings, while striking out 43 batters. That's a 0.28 ERA. He hasn't allowed a run to them in 30 innings.
Dating back to September, Verlander also has thrown 29 consecutive scoreless innings this year after what had been a subpar season for him (13-12 with a 3.46 ERA).
"I'm pitching the way I'm supposed to." he 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 really paid off at the end of the year. It wasn't easy. It was a battle for me all year long. But I felt like I was finally able to make myself more consistent."
"It shows how dedicated he is to being a champion," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
"He was not satisfied just being 'OK' during the season. He kept working on little things because he was not quite in sync. He also knew he could salvage a so-so year -- not a bad year, but a so-so year for him -- with an outstanding postseason. And we're not done."
Verlander saw to that.