OAKLAND, Calif. -- Prince Fielder pushed up the goggles that were protecting his eyes from the streams of champagne flying through the air in the visitors' clubhouse and talked about the beginning of the journey that has taken the Detroit Tigers to the American League Championship Series. He arrived as a free agent last spring, an established slugger and the highest paid player on the team, yes, but also the new guy, trying to figure out his place in the team dynamic. It helped enormously that the team's key figures, pitcher Justin Verlander and third baseman Miguel Cabrera, immediately welcomed him. "Once the cool kids like you," Fielder said, "you know everything's going to be fine."
But of course Cabrera and Verlander aren't kids at all. Few of the Tigers are. They are grownups, veterans on a team built to win a World Series right now, and for five difficult games they were matched against a club that was almost their exact opposite. The Oakland A's were the youngsters, a team constructed more for the future who by some happy accident were making a postseason run in the present. In the end, the older folks sent the young ones home, with the Tigers finally clinching the best-of-5 AL Division Series with a 6-0 victory in Game 5 on Thursday night.
If the A's were kids having a wild party this last month, Verlander, the Tigers' ace, was the dad who came home, turned off the music and put an end to all the fun. He dominated Oakland from the first of his 122 pitches (Pitch count? Verlander doesn't need any stinkin' pitch count) to the last, with a four-hitter in which he struck out 11 and didn't allow a single Oakland runner past second base. He did what seemed unthinkable for the last several weeks -- turned the A's loud and proud fans into nearly silent spectators. "That's what he does," Fielder said. "That's why he has an MVP and a Cy Young award. The hardware speaks for itself."
Moments after Verlander had put the finishing touches on the shutout, the Tigers were hugging and congratulating each other on one side of the diamond, ready to move on the the ALCS against either the Orioles or Yankees, while the A's were doing the same on the other, accepting the cheers of Oakland fans who were grateful for a season that was more memorable than anyone could have expected. For the A's and their fans, the future holds untold promise. For the Tigers, the future is now.
That's why Detroit made the kind of moves that mature teams, teams that are ready to take a run at a title, make. They added Fielder, one more dangerous bat, at monstrous expense -- nine years and $214 million. They acquired veterans at midseason to fill specific needs, trading promising prospects, including their top pitching prospect, Jacob Turner, for pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante. "We're a little different from the A's," said Detroit GM Dave Dombroski. "They're constructing a great foundation. We're trying to put the finishing touches on the building."
Still, it looked like the building wasn't as sturdy as it should have been for much of this season. The Tigers were maddeningly inconsistent for much of the year before they were finally able to pull away from the White Sox in September to win the AL Central. "I felt we should have been better, and I said so," Verlander said after the game. "But coming down the stretch I think you saw what kind of team this is. This is a team full of veterans. When we had to win, we did."
That included Thursday night, when Verlander erased the painful memory of the Tigers' ninth inning collapse the night before -- a three-run A's rally against closer Jose Valverde that gave Oakland a 4-3 win. The breezy confidence Verlander showed immediately following that game served him well in Game 5. He may not have been particularly impressive in previous postseasons, but simply having experienced them gave him an edge over the Oakland starter, rookie Jarrod Parker. "Pitching in big games and in the postseason allowed me to not let my adrenaline and angst get the better of me, but to have the reverse effect," he said. "It allowed me to use that to my advantage."
The Tigers pecked away at Parker to build a 2-0 lead before taking complete control with a four-run seventh that included RBI singles from Infante and Austin Jackson as well as a run that scored when reliever Ryan Cook hit Cabrera with a pitch with the bases loaded. Verlander didn't need nearly that much of a cushion, since he never allowed the A's to build a serious threat. "Our crowd was looking for anything, a walk, a three-ball count," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "They were looking for anything to pick us up and help us out. But when Verlander gets on a roll like that, it's tough to stop him. It's like a locomotive going at high speed. He was tough to deal with."
The A's had one final chance in the eighth inning to re-create the magic that carried them so far. Coco Crisp, who slapped the game-winning single the night before, came to the plate with runners on first and second with two out. The Oakland faithful raised the volume and waved their gold towels. But this time Crisp tapped a harmless grounder to second base and the Coliseum was a library again. "It's disappointing, but we learned something by getting here," Crisp said. "Our younger guys are going to be that much better next time. We'll be the ones with experience."
In other words, they'll be more like the Tigers, who were busy with the champagne bottles in the other clubhouse. Fielder's sons, Jadyn, 7, and Haden, 6, were happily dousing their dad with bubbly. "That's all they've been talking about," Fielder said. "They really want to spray and get sprayed." The Fielder boys probably don't realize how special they are. The Tigers' clubhouse is usually no place for kids.