Anyone who grew up watching John Madden broadcast NFL playoff games can remember saying the words “In big games, stars have to play like stars.” In the world of MLB there aren’t many stars brighter than those of Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, the last two American League MVPs. It was those two that carried Detroit to a 3-0 win over Oakland in Game 5 of their Division Series and put the Tigers into the American League Championship Series for the third straight year.
Sonny Gray wasn’t as sharp as he was in Game 2, when the A’s righthander not only matched zeroes with Verlander, but lasted an inning longer and allowed his team to eventually win the game. Last night, Gray’s curveball wasn’t sharp, as TBS analysts Buck Martinez and Dennis Eckersley pointed out.
The TBS crew was also busy pointing out how Cabrera’s power had been down substantially at the end of the regular season and thus far in the playoffs, thanks to the assortment of ailments that have nagged at the third baseman since August. It seemed almost poetic that as soon as the crew finished all this very accurate commentary, Cabrera launched a big home run into left field that staked Verlander to a 2-zip lead in the fourth.
Verlander would take a perfect game into the sixth inning, a no-hitter into the seventh and complete eight innings. I really don’t know why Jim Leyland pulled him at 111 pitches. In the regular season, sure. But this is a decisive game and your bullpen is problematic. Why not at least give Verlander 14-15 more pitches to see if he could close it out?
Detroit fans were surely asking themselves the same question when closer Joaquin Benoit gave up a two-out hit to Jed Lowrie and then inexcusably plunked Yoenis Cespedes, thus allowing the tying run to the plate. But Benoit got Seth Smith to fly out to right field and the celebration could begin.
It’s the second straight year Oakland has lost a decisive Game 5 on their home field to Verlander. When one is analyzing these matchups, one of the challenges that’s unique to baseball is trying to figure out whether you default to the home team or the one with the best pitcher. There aren’t many homefield crowds as good as the ones in Oakland. There aren’t many pitchers as good as Verlander. The pitcher is now 2-0 over the home crowd.
Detroit moves on to Boston to begin ALCS play against the Red Sox on Saturday night. The NLCS between St. Louis and Los Angeles begins tonight. Previews of both matchups are coming up on TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage.