Tigers turn to Verlander in Game 5
OAKLAND -- The insurance policy sat on a metal folding chair in the corner of the Detroit Tigers' quiet clubhouse on Wednesday night. The jersey in the nearby stall had "Verlander 35" on the back of it, because that's the name and policy number of the Tigers' insurance, their piece of the rock. Maybe you prefer Allstate, but the Tigers prefer to be in the good hands of Justin Verlander.
Detroit's clubhouse was quiet but not funereal after the Oakland A's gut-punched them with a three-run ninth inning that gave the crazy-ridiculous-magical A's a 4-3 victory, tied the best-of-five AL Division Series at 2-2 and shoved the corks back in the Tigers' champagne bottles. Detroit's postgame mood wasn't as dark as it could have been, and that was surely in part because the Tigers know they have their ace, Verlander, the Game 1 winning pitcher, to start Game 5 against Oakland rookie Jarrod Parker and turn Wednesday's devastation into just a meaningless memory.
Detroit entered the ninth on Wednesday with previously lights-out closer Jose Valverde on the mound and visions of a few days of rest before the AL Championship Series dancing in their heads. But before they knew it, Josh Reddick had singled, Josh Donaldson and Seth Smith had followed with doubles to tie the game, and Coco Crisp had singled in the game-winner. Suddenly here were the good-time A's jumping around again with another walk-off win, and Oakland fans happily turning the stands into a sea of waving gold towels while watching the ritual that has become as common as the seventh-inning stretch for this remarkable, dramatic team -- Reddick mashing another celebratory shaving cream pie in the face of the latest hero, this time Crisp.
Being so close to a series victory only to have it disappear with another abracadabra A's comeback might have been enough to permanently rattle most teams, but that's where the insurance policy comes in. The Tigers came to Oakland with a 2-0 lead in the series and the knowledge that even if the worst happened and the A's did exactly what the A's have done, they would have Verlander, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball, the league leader in strikeouts, innings pitched and complete games, to restore some sanity to the series. "You never want it to get to that point, and all the rest of us still have to do our jobs," said catcher Alex Avila, "but that's about the best security blanket you could ask for."
And so there was the Tigers' human insurance policy, looking carefree and confident in the clubhouse after the game. Verlander wore a Tigers hoodie, shorts and sandals as he sat in front of his stall with his legs crossed, looking utterly stress-free. He politely waved off a few reporters who approached him, telling them he would be headed to the interview room to for a short press conference a bit later. While Valverde answered questions about his ninth-inning meltdown, Verlander got up and walked past the cluster of reporters surrounding the closer without even looking over, as if unfazed by the night's failure.
He grabbed a bottle of water, then headed out of the clubhouse and down the hallway toward the interview room, passing Smith and Crisp on the way and seemingly not even noticing them, as calm and carefree as if he was walking down the street to the corner store. When he sat down at the podium table, the first question was about whether the Tigers' near-miss had made him angrier, more determined to right things in Game 5. "No," he said. "Obviously that was a tough one. But it's not the first time we've lost like that, just on a bigger stage."
But what about the responsibility of carrying your teammates' hopes on your shoulders? "I feel like it's about the same as the responsibility in Game 1," he said. "I'm not going to change my mentality. I'm not going to try to do anything more than what I've done all year." If the Tigers needed someone or something to hearten them -- and they clearly did -- Verlander's confidence should do the trick. It's easier to be confident, of course, when you own a Cy Young award from 2011 and a 17-8 record in 2012, but Verlander hasn't exactly been a dominant postseason pitcher, with a 4.96 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in nine playoff starts. Game 5 has individual meaning for him -- it's his chance to build his resume as big-game, clutch pitcher.
In Game 1, Verlander gave up a leadoff homer to Crisp and little else, going seven innings, allowing three hits and striking out seven. There's no telling whether that will be enough to finally drive a stake through the heart of the A's, but you got the feeling that Verlander believes that he's immune to whatever cosmic forces are driving Oakland's amazing run. Everything about his demeanor Wednesday seemed to say, "Don't worry guys, I got this."
"I've got faith in our guys and we'll go out there and see what happens," Verlander said. His guys have even more faith in him. Can a great pitcher overcome a team that has become a great story? Can a 95 mph fastball cut through all that good A's karma? We will have our answers soon enough. But here's something to keep in mind: When you looked closely at Verlander as he went about his postgame business on Wednesday night, you could see just a hint of a smile.