OAKLAND -- Don't you just love it when the team with the low payroll and the little-known, underrated players proves that, gosh darn it, you can beat the rich kids with chemistry, hard work and some shrewd drafting and trading? The story just gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling, every time, doesn't it?
Well, this is not that story.
Sometimes the stars play like stars when they are needed most. Sometimes the high-spending teams get exactly what they paid for. You're familiar with the phrase, "This is why they get paid the big bucks?" The Tigers' 3-0 Game 5 victory over the A's on Thursday night -- the one that sent them into the American League Championship Series for the second straight year -- is why the Tigers' Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera get paid the big bucks.
Despite a groin injury that had him hobbling like your grandpa getting out of bed in the morning, Cabrera (making $21 million this season) was great for one pitch, a high fastball that he deposited beyond the left field wall for a two-run homer in the fourth inning. Verlander ($20 million) was nearly flawless for eight innings, the first 6 2/3 of which he held the A's hitless. He finished with 10 strikeouts and allowed only two hits and a walk before closer Joaquin Benoit finished up in the ninth.
It was left to the Tigers' third big-ticket item, first baseman Prince Fielder ($23 million), to sum things up. "We're a great team because we have great players," Fielder said. "Justin and Miggy, they earned their paychecks tonight."
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Fielder, Cabrera and Verlander's salaries alone are more than Oakland's entire $60 million payroll, which, for the second straight year, bought the A's both an AL West title and a spirit-crushing loss to Detroit in the deciding game of the ALDS. In a nightmarish bit of déjà vu for the A's, Verlander nearly duplicated his performance of a year ago in Game 5 against them, when he threw a complete game shutout and struck out 11. He's been so dominant against Oakland that it felt like he could have kept putting up zeroes until the next time the Raiders need the stadium back. Verlander now has 30 consecutive shutout innings in the postseason against Oakland.
His return to his masterful self after a middling regular season by his standards is about as positive a development as the Tigers, who will open the ALCS against the Red Sox on Saturday in Boston, could have asked. Verlander seems to have regained the velocity that was missing earlier in the year. His average fastball, below 93 mph in April, was above 95 in September, and he now has four consecutive double-figure strikeout games. "I'm pitching the way I'm supposed to," Verlander said after the postgame champagne celebration. "I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end."
With a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a low 80s change that he alternated beautifully, Verlander had the A's hitters taking awkward, ungainly hacks most of the night, which is why it raised eyebrows -- and lifted Oakland's spirits -- when manager Jim Leyland pulled him after 111 pitches and sent out Benoit for the ninth. Things got a little hairy for the Tigers at that point, but Benoit saved his manager from a ton of second-guessing when he got DH Seth Smith to fly out with two on and two out to end it. "We checked with him," Leyland said of Verlander. "He was really tired after the eighth. He felt like he could probably go out (to start the inning) but couldn't get out of a jam, and I said, 'I'm not going to do that to my closer. You're done.'"
The Tigers had all they needed from Verlander, thanks largely to Cabrera's one swing in the fourth. Because of the groin and other nagging aches, he hasn't been able to pull pitches with authority since early September -- until Thursday night. "There's not time to be hurt right now," he said. "I'm feeling good."
The A's, however, weren't feeling so hot after letting a 2-1 series lead get away with back-to-back losses. Oakland seems to do everything well except close the deal -- the A's are now 1-11 in their last dozen potential series-clinching games. They asked rookie Sonny Gray to match Verlander, a former Cy Young and MVP winner, pitch for pitch for the second time in the series, and Gray simply wasn't up to the task. His off-speed pitches weren't as sharp as they were in Game 2, when he outdueled Verlander in Oakland's 1-0 win, and he managed to last only five innings, giving up three runs on six hits.
It just wasn't the night for the spunky young kids. It was a night for the experienced, battle-tested veterans to do what they are paid so handsomely to do. One day, perhaps, these A's will be in that role, and they won't have to hear the sounds of their opponents whooping and hollering from the other clubhouse, the aroma of champagne wafting down the hall to taunt them.
Oh, that bubbly. "It tastes bad, it burns your eyes, it smells terrible and it's sticky," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said over the celebratory din in the clubhouse. Then he went off to get doused in some more.