OAKLAND, Calif. — Baseball doesn’t always have perfect endings. If it did, the Oakland A’s would have done something special Thursday night, something so incredible it would have resonated into next season.
They were a team with passion and resilience, but they encountered an immovable force in the fifth and deciding game of the American League Division Series. On a night when it appeared they wouldn’t be stopped, they were.
Justin Verlander did it. The Detroit Tigers right-hander is more than just a dominant pitcher; he is overpowering. Against a team with momentum, a team that lost the first two games of the best-of-five series then came back to tie, he made the deciding game seem routine.
If the A’s believed they could pull off a memorable comeback, Verlander gave them a resounding response: Not tonight.
The Tigers’ 6-0 victory was less about offense than it was about Verlander, who threw 122 pitches in a four-hit shutout and struck out 11. The Detroit bullpen didn’t budge all night.
“After the second inning, I could see it in his eyes,” catcher Gerald Laird said. “If we could just get him one or two runs, we were going to win this game. He had that look, and he had the stuff after the first couple of innings that he was going to dominate.”
He did. The A’s advanced only two base runners as far as second. They had two runners on base in the same inning only once. At one point, he retired 15 of 16 batters.
“He’s a big-game pitcher,” A’s outfielder Josh Reddick said. “He does everything well. He mixes his pitches, and it helps when you throw hard, too. He throws 95, then slows everything down with an 83-mph changeup.”
Through the first six innings, Verlander threw 88 pitches, 36 registering 95 mph or higher. He struck out Derek Norris on a 98-mph fastball to end the fifth with a runner on first and blew away Stephen Drew to end the sixth with a 96-mph heater.
But it was his changeup, he said, that was the most important component of his game.
“I could tell from the first batter, from Coco (Crisp), that it was going to be an effective pitch for me,” he said. “It’s just one of those things as a pitcher that you go out and see what you’ve got and what’s going to work for you that night.
“I was hoping my changeup was going to be good with as many lefties as they had. If it was on, I knew it would make it tough on them.”
After tying the series with a walk-off hit from Crisp on Wednesday, the A’s believed they were on the brink of something memorable. They won the AL West title on the last day of the season, dropped the first two games to the Tigers in Detroit, then returned to their home ballpark and created a magical atmosphere that was impossible to ignore.
“We didn’t think it was going to end today, not for a second,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We knew we were going up against a good pitcher — that didn’t mean we didn’t think we were going to win.
“It’s a bit of a shock when it finally does end. It was a heck of a story. It was a heck of a run for us.”
To their credit, the A’s players remembered to acknowledge their fans, who filled up the usually half-empty Oakland Coliseum for a third consecutive night. While the Tigers celebrated on the field and drenched themselves in champagne in their clubhouse, the A’s emerged from the dugout to thank their supporters.
“We came a long way and accomplished a lot,” Reddick said. “We’re upset we didn’t go very far, but on the other hand we’re very proud of everybody’s accomplishments this year. We feel like we made a huge mark on this league. I wish we could’ve (gone) farther.”
In a perfect world, they would have. The little team that could would have found a way to win, just as it did during the regular season.
But the A’s couldn’t beat Verlander. And maybe that’s how it was meant to be.