OAKLAND, Calif. — Miguel Cabrera danced on a chair in one corner of the visiting clubhouse, puffing a cigar. Prince Fielder doused his young sons, Jadyn and Haven, with non-alcoholic sparkling wine, then handed them each a bottle to shake and spray.
Just when the celebration seemed to be ending, Justin Verlander ran through the door and screamed “Whoo!”
On the mound and in the clubhouse, Verlander made sure Detroit’s postseason party wasn’t over yet.
The reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and MVP backed up his credentials in the biggest moment of the season Thursday night, throwing a four-hitter in the decisive Game 5 to get the Tigers back to the AL championship series for a second straight year with a 6-0 victory over the overachieving Oakland Athletics.
“This is where legends are made,” catcher Alex Avila said. “Tonight, he basically put us on his back and said, ‘We’re not going to lose.’”
Verlander delivered in the division series a day after closer Jose Valverde failed to hold a two-run lead in the ninth that pushed Detroit to the brink after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead back home.
Verlander gave Valverde — and every other arm — the night off.
The right-hander tossed his first career postseason shutout and complete game with a 122-pitch masterpiece. He struck out 11 and walked one.
“He had a look in his eye today,” manager Jim Leyland said. “A complete-game look in his eye.”
The Tigers flew back to Detroit to see if they will face either the New York Yankees or Baltimore Orioles. That series is tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5 on Friday night in New York. Game 1 of the ALCS is scheduled for Saturday.
If Baltimore wins, it will start in Detroit. Otherwise the Motown crew is headed to the Big Apple.
“These moments you can’t even describe. But it does get better every round, and we want that feeling,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said, his white-shirt soaked in bubbly. “We’ve felt this before. We want that even better feeling.”
Verlander made sure they’ll have a chance.
He was so sharp nobody in the bullpen ever got up to throw. Verlander struck out 22 in his wins on both ends of this nail-biting series, and saved his best for last.
After the Tigers squandered two chances to clinch the series, including blowing a two-run, ninth-inning lead in Game 4, Leyland left it all up to Verlander, just as he said he would.
“I think it’s one of those things I expected to go nine innings,” Verlander said. “In this situation, in a Game 5, I wanted to go all the way.”
Austin Jackson hit an RBI double in the third and a run-scoring single during a four-run seventh. Fielder also had an RBI single.
The Tigers are on to another ALCS despite getting just one RBI all series from Triple Crown winner Cabrera — on a bases-loaded hit by pitch in the final game, no less. Booed by the yellow towel-twirling sellout crowd of 36,393 each time he stepped into the batter’s box, Cabrera finished 5 for 20, and it was his blooper dropped by center fielder Coco Crisp in a 5-4 Game 2 victory Sunday that allowed two runs to score.
Leave it to Verlander to erase all the mistakes — and Leyland all but called his ace’s latest gem.
The Detroit skipper gave the ball to his 17-game winner and said beforehand the Tigers would likely win or lose with the hard-throwing right-hander on the mound.
“Justin Verlander’s a pretty tough chore for anybody,” Leyland said.
And, against the A’s — or anybody else, for that matter — Verlander usually wins.
Verlander recorded the most strikeouts in a shutout of a winner-take-all postseason game, topping Sandy Koufax’s 10 in the 1965 World Series against Minnesota.
“When you’re going into pressure situations like this, there’s nobody better to have on the mound than Justin,” Jackson said.
Verlander followed up an 11-strikeout outing in Detroit’s 3-1 Game 1 win Saturday with another overpowering performance in his 10th postseason start. He improved to 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA in three postseason starts against the A’s and upped his career mark to 5-4 with 2.15 ERA in 10 starts at the Coliseum.
Verlander had allowed one earned run with a 0.69 ERA in beating the A’s twice during the regular season.
“He’s always tough. You go out there and you battle him the best that you can,” Crisp said. “Today he had some of his best stuff of the year.”
Detroit finally got to party in a visiting clubhouse that for the sixth straight game was prepped for a possible clinch celebration.
The Texas Rangers were in town last week needing one victory to win the AL West but dropped all three to lose the division to the surprising A’s in game No. 162.
On Wednesday night, plastic covering the floor and lockers was torn down in all of about 40 seconds after Valverde allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth as Oakland won with another walkoff in a season full of them.
This time, the Tigers let loose.
Players quickly ran to a table to grab another celebratory bottle when Verlander entered the clubhouse, drenching him in all directions and chanting “Cy Young! Cy Young!”
“It was awesome and horrible at the same time because you can’t see a thing,” he said. “Your eyes are burning and all I want to do is look up and celebrate with my teammates. And all I can do is look down and shut my eyes.”
After Seth Smith grounded out to end the game, the A’s stayed on the field to greet the fans who were still on their feet chanting “Let’s Go Oakland!” Verlander waved toward the Oakland players in a classy acknowledgment, and Leyland walked over to wish A’s manager Bob Melvin well.
Detroit’s offense did more than enough to give Verlander a cushion on another relatively quiet night by Cabrera and Fielder, the team’s $214 million cleanup hitter who signed as a free agent from Milwaukee in the winter.
Cabrera went five straight games without an RBI on four different occasions during the regular season, but didn’t extend that to the playoffs when Ryan Cook plunked him with the bases loaded in the seventh.
The upstart A’s were attempting to become the ninth team to rally from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series, but couldn’t match the cross-bay Giants after San Francisco won at Cincinnati earlier in the day to reach the NL championship series.
So much for all that chatter about another Bay Bridge World Series in Northern California like the earthquake-interrupted Series in 1989 swept by the A’s.
Oakland struck out 50 times in a series of swings and misses after riding high only a week ago, stunning the two-time reigning AL champion Rangers on the regular season’s final day to win the AL West. The strikeouts were the most in A’s franchise history for a five-game series.
The A’s payroll of $59.5 million is lowest in the majors. But the last game was the only lopsided one.
Detroit eliminated Oakland again after the Tigers pulled off a four-game sweep in the 2006 AL championship series.
“We didn’t think it was going to end today, not for a second,” 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. We’ve gone up against good pitchers this year. And 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.”
The Tigers now look to get through another round after falling in six games to the Rangers in last year’s ALCS.