The Tigers built their postseason momentum over the weekend on dominant pitching, but they've reached the point where they don't have to put up zeros to win. Just when Oakland seemingly had Verlander solved for the first time in four outings against him this year, just in time for the American League Championship Series, Detroit's lineup came through to help, putting him ahead in the middle innings and keeping him there for an 8-5 win Wednesday night.
The team that limped into the postseason with a five-game losing streak now heads back to Detroit with a 2-0 series lead and a pair of starters coming off dominant outings in Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman. All eight previous teams in LCS history to take the first two games on the road have advanced since the series became a best-of-seven in 1985.
It doesn't seal the series for the Tigers, but it makes the looming cold spell in the Midwest a little easier to take.
"I guess you find things to say when you're 0-2 and you find things to say when you're 2-0," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "But to me, the reality is we play on Friday night and it'll be a whole new chapter each and every game. That's the way it is."
Wednesday's chapter revolved around so many Tigers, but it nonetheless centered on pitching, starting with Verlander and ending with a Todd Jones showdown. The former didn't dominate on Wednesday, but he nonetheless impressed.
"He's battling," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "He's a young guy. We know he's a little tired right now, but when you have a kid like that pitching five, six innings and leaves the game with a lead, that means a lot.
It took just 11 pitches for Verlander to hit triple digits on the same radar gun he lit up for 101 mph back in April. Unfortunately for him, Milton Bradley lined that pitch into right field for an RBI single and an early A's lead. He hit 101 during the next at-bat en route to striking out Frank Thomas.
After Craig Monroe's sacrifice fly tied the game in the next half-inning, Bradley put Oakland back on top in the third by pulling a hanging changeup deep to right for a two-run homer.
"Bad pitch," Verlander said, "and he hit it."
All that damage didn't mean Verlander was easy to hit. He struck out six A's in a 13-batter stretch from the first inning into the fourth, including Thomas twice on fastballs and three others on curveballs he spotted for called third strikes. He used one of them to strike out Nick Swisher in the second inning, then used another to set up a 98-mph fastball Swisher swung through in the fourth.
All the while, however, the A's made him work. He faced just four batters in that fourth inning, but needed 23 pitches to retire the side. Another 23-pitch inning in the fifth left him entering the sixth just shy of 100.
"I don't think I got settled down the whole game," Verlander said. "I was a little sporadic. Curveball was there sometimes. Fastball was there sometimes. I was struggling a little bit, battled through, gave our team a chance to win."
"He got in trouble early in the game," Rodriguez said. "He stayed up a little bit, but he was able to get the job done. Later in the game, he found a good rhythm with the breaking ball, and that helped us a lot."
He didn't go far above the 100-pitch mark. Eric Chavez homered leading off the sixth, then Jay Payton scorched a line drive that Monroe ran down in left. Wilfredo Ledezma came on to end the sixth, and nearly the seventh, until Bradley struck for his second homer, a solo shot to left-center to pull Oakland within two.
As it turned out, Leyland didn't have Joel Zumaya available because of a tight forearm, similar to what he had a couple months ago. But Leyland said that didn't factor into keeping Verlander in the game.
"I didn't pull him [after the fifth] because I thought he had good stuff," Leyland said of Verlander, "because I thought he had good stuff, and it's hard to take somebody out that has that kind of stuff."
It was a rough outing for a pitching staff that had allowed four runs over a 32-inning stretch entering the night. It was a chance of life for the A's, but the Tigers' opportunistic offense made sure it didn't decide the outcome.
Though the Tigers missed the injured Sean Casey in his customary third spot, Placido Polanco and the bottom of the order made up the difference by punishing Esteban Loaiza for mistake pitches. Polanco had three singles and a run scored, including a leadoff hit to set up a go-ahead three-run fourth inning capped by Alexis Gomez's two-run single.
Gomez, a spare outfielder on the playoff roster who started at DH to put up another left-handed bat against Loaiza, padded the lead his next time up with a two-run homer in the sixth. All seven RBIs and four of the runs scored came from the bottom third of the lineup until Curtis Granderson's leadoff homer in the ninth.
It became a critical run once Oakland loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning. Three consecutive two-out singles off Jones brought Thomas to the plate with a chance at a walk-off grand slam.
None of Thomas' 487 career regular-season homers, amazingly, have come off of Jones, and none have come in the postseason, either. A flyout to center kept it that way, and kept the Tigers rolling on a day when 101 mph didn't mean as much as 2-0.
"When you have 2-0 going home," Rodriguez said, "it's always a great advantage. We just have to go out there and keep doing what we're doing, just go out there, take one inning [at a time] and play hard. I know we're two victories from the World Series, but we have to concentrate."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less