Verlander strong as Tigers close out A's, head to ALCS again

Oakland, CA ( - Justin Verlander watched the ball skip into center field, walked to the back of the mound and clapped his glove together, calling for it back.

His no-hit bid broken up by Yoenis Cespedes' two-out single in the seventh inning, Verlander went back to work.

"I can usually tell by the look on his face and his demeanor prior to a game when he's zeroed in and locked in," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, "and he was locked in tonight."

Verlander gave up just two hits in eight shutout innings Thursday night and Detroit beat the Oakland Athletics 3-0 to reach the American League Championship Series for the third straight year.

Game 5 of the ALDS was a rematch of Game 2, but this time Verlander (1-0) got the better of A's rookie Sonny Gray.

Miguel Cabrera's first home run in more than three weeks -- a two-run shot in the fourth off Gray (0-1) -- was all the offense Detroit needed with Verlander on the mound.

He gave up just two singles, throwing 76 of his 111 pitches for strikes while fanning 10 and walking one.

After getting two outs in the ninth, Joaquin Benoit gave up a double to Jed Lowrie and hit Cespedes to bring up the tying run, but Seth Smith flied out to end the game.

The Tigers won two straight games to reach the ALCS for the fourth time in eight years. They are the first team to make three straight ALCS appearances since the Yankees won four straight AL pennants from 1998-2001.

They will face the Red Sox on the road in Game 1 Saturday night at Fenway Park in Boston.

Verlander clinched the ALCS berth for Detroit for the second season in a row against the A's. In Game 5 last year, Verlander struck out 11 in a four-hit shutout and the Tigers won 6-0.

He had 11 strikeouts again in seven innings in Game 2 on Saturday, but Gray fanned nine over eight frames and the A's won the game in the ninth inning.

Verlander was perfect through 5 1/3 innings until he threw four straight balls to Josh Reddick after going up 0-2 in the sixth.

Reddick also singled off Verlander in the eighth -- an offensive outburst in context.

Gray was charged with all three Detroit runs in five-plus innings, giving up six hits and four walks with three strikeouts. The 23-year-old got the start over 18-game winner Bartolo Colon, who lost Game 1. It was the seventh time in their last 10 playoff games the A's started a rookie pitcher.

Gray didn't give up a hit until the fourth, but he wasn't Verlander's equal this time.

The A's lost for the 12th time in their last 13 potential clinching games in the playoffs. They were knocked out of the postseason by the Tigers for the third time in a row -- a stretch that also includes the 2006 ALCS.

Bob Melvin, who managed the AL West-champion A's to 96 wins, said he expected to go deeper in the playoffs than this. Beating Detroit twice with Verlander as the starter turned out to be too much to ask for.

"He was on it early. We weren't getting very good swings on him," said Melvin. "I thought maybe when it started to get darker, we would get better swings, but he kept throwing fastballs."

"We're just trying to get him in the stretch," Melvin said. "Our fans were just waiting for a reason to get into a frenzy."

Easier said than done.

There have only been two no-hitters in MLB postseason history: Don Larsen's perfect game for the Yankees against Brooklyn in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, and Roy Halladay's no-hitter for the Phillies against Cincinnati in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS.

Verlander has two career no-hitters in the regular season and numerous other brushes. Thursday night looked a lot like those other games: Verlander in control of his pitches, including a hard fastball and dipping curve. One of the curveballs was so enticing, Lowrie fouled it off with a check swing despite the ball bouncing well in front of the plate.

That was in the seventh, when Lowrie worked a seven-pitch at-bat, fouling off six straight before flying out. Two pitches later, Cespedes hit a 1-0 fastball up the middle to break up the no-hitter. Verlander responded by striking out Smith on four pitches.

He fanned Stephen Vogt after Reddick hit a two-out single in the eighth, then watched as Lowrie doubled off Benoit and Cespedes was hit in the abdomen by a pitch before the Detroit closer got Smith to fly out.

Verlander has put a down regular season (for him) behind him after going 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA for the AL Central champions.

"I'm pitching the way I'm supposed to," he said. "I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year. It wasn't easy. It was a battle for me all year long. But I felt like I was finally able to make a couple of adjustments that I was able to make and get myself to be more consistent."

He had five strikeouts in the first three innings. In the fifth, he ran a 3-2 count on Smith in an eight-pitch at-bat that ended in a grounder. If shortstop Jhonny Peralta hadn't been playing Smith up the middle, it might have been the closest thing the A's had to a hit up to that point.

Alberto Callaspo hit a sharp grounder down the first base line leading off the sixth, but Prince Fielder was right there. Verlander then walked Reddick, who tagged and went to second on Vogt's long fly ball to center. But Coco Crisp flied out to left to end the inning.

Torii Hunter's one-out single in the fourth inning was the first hit off Gray. Cabrera then lined a 94 mph fastball over the left field wall for his first home run since Sept. 17, giving the Tigers a 2-0 lead.

The Tigers loaded the bases with two outs, but Gray escaped the jam on an Omar Infante grounder. Gray put two runners on in the fifth but got out of the inning without allowing a run.

After giving up back-to-back singles to Victor Martinez and Peralta to start the sixth, Gray was pulled for Dan Otero. One of the runners scored after back-to-back force plays, making it 3-0 Detroit.

Game Notes

The Red Sox beat the Rays in four games in the other ALDS ... In the first inning, Gray struck out leadoff hitter Austin Jackson for the fifth straight time in the series ... Verlander's no-hitters came June 12, 2007 against Milwaukee and May 7, 2011 at Toronto ... Max Scherzer, Detroit's 21-game winner, won Game 1 last Friday and threw two innings for the win in Game 4 on Tuesday, so giving Verlander the nod Thursday was a no-brainer for the Tigers.