(SportsNetwork.com) - Justin Verlander can put a season's worth of frustration behind him on Saturday, as he tries to give the Detroit Tigers a commanding two games to none lead over the Oakland Athletics in the best-of-five American League Division Series at O.co Coliseum.
Verlander nowhere near resembled the pitcher who not only won an AL Cy Young back in 2011, but was also the league's MVP. The hard-throwing righty never got into a groove and ended the year 13-12 with his highest ERA (3.46), lowest strikeout rate (23.5 percent) and lowest innings total (218 1/3) since 2008, while battling reduced velocity.
"I honestly don't look at myself any differently. We aren't robots, things aren't always perfect, and this is a season that opened my eyes to that fact," said Verlander, who didn't allow a run over his last two starts and pitched to a 2.27 ERA in September. "The last couple of years came pretty easy to me, right from the Spring Training, from the jump street, it was like, 'OK, my pitches are good, go from here.'
"This year wasn't like that. I would fix something and that would cause a kink in the chain, and I would fix that. It was a matter of getting myself to where I need to do be. It was a year-long battle. I'm not going to lie. This is something I worked on from early in the season until a couple of weeks ago, and I felt like the last couple of starts were where I needed to be. It's funny that it took all year, but hopefully I figured it out and peaking at the right time."
Verlander, of course, tossed a shutout in Game 5 versus the A's last year in the ALDS, but he has been pretty pedestrian in the postseason, pitching to a 4.22 ERA in 12 starts.
Even with the off year from Verlander, the Tigers starting staff still led the AL in almost every major category. A big reason for that was the play of Max Scherzer, who put forth a Cy Young caliber season of his own with a major league-best 21 wins.
Scherzer was again on the mark in Game 1 on Friday, as he allowed two runs and struck out 11 over seven innings in Detroit's 3-2 win.
Miguel Cabrera's RBI single highlighted Detroit's three-run first, which was more than enough cushion for the 21-game winner Scherzer (1-0), who surrendered just three hits.
"I thought Scherzer was pretty well locked in all night, he was awful determined," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "I think he was thrilled to get Game 1, I think it meant a lot to him."
Victor Martinez tallied two hits and a run scored, while Alex Avila added a pair of hits and an RBI for the defending AL-champion Tigers.
Teams have gone up 2-0 in the ALDS 22 times and advanced in 18 of them.
Bartolo Colon (0-1), whose 18 regular-season wins were second-best in the AL, yielded three runs on 10 hits over six innings. Colon never got a chance to pitch in last year's ALDS. He served a 50-game ban for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Yoenis Cespedes smacked a two-run homer and a triple, accounting for two of Oakland's three hits against Scherzer. The A's struck out 16 times.
On Saturday the A's will turn to rookie right-hander Sonny Gray, who was terrific down the stretch. Gray was 5-3 overall on the season, but 3-1 in September with a 2.79 ERA in five starts.
"It's something you really look forward to, growing up, and hopefully someday you get a chance to do it," Gray said. "Fortunately for me, this is my second, maybe third month in the big leagues and I'm getting to start a playoff game. There are a lot of guys in this game who said they wished they'd gotten the opportunity and they just haven't been on a playoff team. I'm very fortunate and I'm just going to try and go out there and make the most of it."
Gray has never faced the Tigers, but pitched to a 1.90 ERA in six home starts and struck out 38 batters over 40 2/3 innings of those outings.
"The problem with Sonny Gray," said Leyland, "is we don't know much about him, other than what we've seen on TV."
Detroit, which lost four of seven games against the A's during the season, has beaten Oakland the last two times these teams have met in the postseason. The A's only win against the Tigers in the playoffs came in the 1972 ALCS, which started a run of three consecutive world titles for Oakland.
Game 3 will be in Detroit on Monday.