OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Justin Verlander ripped off his jersey and rubbed Torii Hunter’s bald head. The Tigers pulled on goggles and popped bubbly, then waited for their straggling slugger. At last, Miguel Cabrera walked through the door to chants of “Miggy! Miggy! Miggy!”
Detroit’s two biggest stars, Verlander and Cabrera, teamed up Thursday night to send the Tigers back to the AL championship series with a 3-0 winner-take-all victory over the Oakland Athletics in their division series.
“We won the game, that’s all it’s about,” Cabrera said. “We want to win a World Series, man, that’s our goal.”
With the season on the line once more in Oakland, Verlander pitched another Game 5 gem by carrying a no-hit bid into the seventh inning. With his body aching, Cabrera contributed all the offense needed in one sweet swing — a two-run homer — as the Tigers eliminated the A’s again.
“I’m pitching the way I’m supposed to. I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be,” Verlander said. “I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year.”
Joaquin Benoit retired Seth Smith on a fly ball with two on in the ninth to close out the deciding game of the series. The Tigers became the first team to reach the ALCS in three straight years since the New York Yankees from 1998-2001.
Anibal Sanchez will start Game 1 in Boston on Saturday. The Tigers went 4-3 against the Red Sox this year, but they have never faced each other in the postseason.
Detroit staved off elimination at home in Game 4, overcoming a three-run deficit on Tuesday. Behind Verlander, the Tigers never trailed in shutting out Oakland in Game 5 for the second straight October.
The big right-hander gave up a clean, two-out single to Yoenis Cespedes in the seventh to end his chance at the third no-hitter in postseason history. The hit hardly fazed him, however.
“We got pretty close there, seven innings is pretty unbelievable,” catcher Alex Avila said. “To be honest, I thought we had a chance. He had the stuff for it, he had no-hit stuff.”
On a night he allowed only three baserunners, Verlander made it a postseason-record 30 straight scoreless innings against one team since Coco Crisp hit a leadoff home run for the A’s in Game 1 last October.
Just 364 days earlier, Verlander tossed a four-hit, 6-0 masterpiece in Game 5 in this very ballpark, a 122-pitch performance for his first career postseason shutout and complete game.
“Obviously it’s something that you dream about as a kid. It’s a win or go home, you visualize when you’re 10 years old in your backyard, Game 5, Game 7, gotta win,” Verlander said. “It’s pretty exciting to have gone out there twice in that scenario and done a good job.”
He nearly matched last year’s shutout with a spectacular 111-pitch outing in a rematch of his thrilling pitcher’s duel with rookie Sonny Gray five days earlier in Game 2.
Aching slugger Cabrera connected in the fourth, a drive into the left-field seats for his first homer since Sept. 17 and just his third extra-base hit in 99 at-bats. That ended a 20-inning scoreless streak by the Tigers at the Coliseum.
Gray danced with danger from the start with stuff not nearly as crisp as just five nights before when he matched zeros with the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner.
This time, Verlander didn’t allow a baserunner until Josh Reddick drew a one-out walk in the sixth — but the no-hit bid remained until Cespedes’ single the next inning. The hardest hit ball was a fly to the center field warning track by Stephen Vogt in the sixth.
“Everything about it is frustrating. We’re a better team than that,” Vogt said. “We deserved better. We just didn’t get it done.”
Verlander struck out 10 in eight innings, giving him 21 Ks in these two starts. He has 43 strikeouts in his four playoff outings against Oakland the past two years.
The A’s saw their season end at the hands of Detroit for the third time in as many postseasons, including in a four-game sweep in the 2006 ALCS.
Oakland has lost its last six winner-take-all Game 5s and fell to 1-12 in potential clincherssince 2000. The A’s struck out 57 times for the most in a best-of-five playoff series.
Verlander earned the nod for the decider after Game 1 winner Max Scherzer pitched in relief of an 8-6, season-saving win Game 4 in Detroit. Manager Jim Leyland had no qualms turning again to Verlander, who went 13-12 this season.
When asked before the game about his bullpen availability, Leyland nodded his head and quipped, “Verlander, he’s available.”
Gray, meanwhile, looked overmatched this time. He wiped his brow and never got comfortable. Then, he broke his left thumb on Prince Fielder’s fifth-inning comebacker.
A’s manager Bob Melvin went with Gray over 18-game winner and 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, who yielded three first-inning runs to lose Game 1.
“He pitched fine tonight,” Melvin said. “He basically just gives up a home run to Miguel Cabrera. When you don’t score a run and only get a couple hits, you know you have to be perfect.”
These Game 5s are becoming awfully familiar for both sides in their recent October rivalry.
Detroit held another clinching party in the visiting clubhouse of the Oakland Coliseum, where a raucous crowd of 46,959 swirled yellow towels until Benoit threw his hands in the air at the final out.
Avila met Benoit in front of the mound for a long embrace as their teammates quickly joined them — with cheers of “Let’s go Oakland!” still ringing out.
The Tigers came together near the mound for a unique chant in which they squatted in unison and raised their hands in the air. They call it “Turn Up,” because “you’ve gotta turn it up,” Avila said.
The 93-win Tigers are determined to take the next step and win a championship after being swept in four games of the 2012 World Series by the San Francisco Giants.
“That’s the motivation that we’ve been looking for, that we’ve had all year,” Verlander said. “Guys like Torii who wasn’t a part of our team last year, he comes in and he’s got that urge. He wants to win that championship before he retires. Everybody else that was here that had a taste of that last year how much it hurts, it’s that extra driving factor.”
Hunter hollered for all to hear in the clubhouse, “Let’s go, boys! Way to fight!” yelled Hunter.
The 23-year-old Gray, pitching to chants of “Sonny! Sonny!” in his 12th career start, returned for the sixth inning at 92 pitches but was done once he allowed consecutive singles to Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta. Omar Infante then drove in the third run with a fielder’s choice grounder off Dan Otero.
Along the 880 freeway just outside the Coliseum, a billboard blared: “IT’S ALWAYS SONNY IN THE TOWN.” The only thing sunny was the outfield for the early evening start, which had players shielding their eyes to deal with tricky shadows and sun angles. Center field and right field initially played in bright sun.
Rookie starters have lost their last six winner-take-all postseason games since Daisuke Matsuzaka beat Cleveland in the 2007 ALCS for Boston.
Gray’s curveball had less break and he never found the same groove that carried him in his playoff debut. It was a breezy Bay Area night and 19 degrees cooler at first pitch than the 82 degrees in a game starting an hour later Saturday night.
This marks another disappointing exit for the low-budget A’s, who have baseball’s 27th smallest payroll at $71.1 million after having the lowest at $59.5 million last year.
“Right now it’s a little emotional, a little sad and a little frustrating,” Crisp said. “I didn’t want to have to say goodbye so soon to the guys I went to battle with. It’s hard.”
NOTES: Verlander tried for just the third no-hitter in postseason history and first since Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay no-hit Cincinnati on Oct. 6, 2010. Don Larsen pitched a perfect game for the New York Yankees against Brooklyn in the World Series on Oct. 8, 1956. ... Brandon Moss struck out 13 times in 18 at-bats. Detroit’s Austin Jackson fanned 13 times in 20 at-bats.