Justin Verlander too good for the A's

Another Game 5, so let’s try another running diary.

First, a couple quick notes on the starting pitchers. Joe Sheehan made a great point about Sonny Gray in his newsletter: Other than his Game 2 start against the Tigers, Gray has faced a pretty easy slate of opponents in his short career, including the Astros and Mariners twice, plus two starts against the Joe Mauer-less Twins in September. Of 329 pitchers to throw at least 50 innings, Gray was 255th in quality of opposing batters faced (per Baseball Prospectus).

That said, aside from those dominant eight shutout innings in Game 2, I think there are two other reasons Bob Melvin gave him the start over Bartolo Colon: (1) Gray has a 1.66 ERA at home and (2) Gray’s fastball has more juice than Colon’s. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have struggled against good fastballs, Cabrera of late due to his injuries and Fielder all season (he slugged just .439 against fastballs in the regular season). They’ve fed Cabrera a steady diet of fastballs and neither he nor Fielder have an extra-base or a walk in the series.

As for Justin Verlander, he’s allowed one earned run in three postseason starts against Oakland the past two years, striking out 11 each game. Of course, what he did last season isn’t all that relevant to this season, unless he’s in the heads of the Oakland hitters, and as a reminder the A’s did score five runs off Verlander in late August.

First inning

One major lineup change for the Tigers: Jhonny Peralta is back at his old shortstop position over Jose Iglesias with Don Kelly playing left field. With Verlander on the mound, it’s probably worth taking the defensive hit at shortstop, as Verlander’s a good bet to rack up strikeouts and he’s also more of a fly ball pitcher. Kelly gives Jim Leyland a much better glove in left and another left-handed bat to do battle against Gray’s curveball.

Both pitchers cruise through the first, one strikeout for Gray, two for Verlander.

Second inning

The Tigers run themselves into a double play when they try a strange hit-and-run with Fielder (who had walked) on first and Peralta at bat. Halfway to second base, Fielder turns around and tries to hop on the BART back to first base.

Verlander has another 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, impressively blowing two fast ones past Brandon Moss.

Third inning

Is there any manager more lovably crusty than Leyland? In one of those between-innings interview he says Gray isn’t as sharp as Game 2, so they better get to him early. But he says it in that flat monotone, so you don’t know if he’s disgusted his team hasn’t scored or just perturbed he can’t go smoke a cigarette. The Tigers don’t have a hit through three innings, although Gray has thrown just 22 of 41 pitches for strikes.

Meanwhile, Verlander is nine up and nine down, firing a 96 mph 3-2 fastball right down the middle and right past Stephen Vogt for his fifth strikeout. These two pitchers have combined for 23 scoreless innings in the series and Verlander has 23 consecutive scoreless innings going back to the regular season.

Fourth inning

With one out, Torii Hunter grounds a 3-2, 94 mph four-seamer up the middle for the game’s first hit. There goes our dream of a double no-hitter! And then -- finally! -- Cabrera connects. A 93 mph fastball low and away for a ball and then a 94 mph fastball up and in that Cabrera powers over the left-field wall, just his second home run since late August. Not sure if it was Dennis Eckersley or Buck Martinez who said it on air, but with the way they’ve been getting Cabrera out all series by going away, away, away, that pitch was not the location the A's wanted. Tigers up 2-0.

With the way Verlander is pitching, that home run feels a lot like the two-run home run David Freese hit for the Cardinals on Wednesday night.

Also, Leyland was right. Unable to throw the curve for strikes, the Tigers are starting to sit on the fastball. Victor Martinez singles to left with two outs. Peralta singles. Very dangerous right now for the A’s as they can’t afford to give up anything else. Nobody is warming up.

Alex Avila walks to load the bases. Dan Otero finally gets up, but if Omar Infante singles here it’s 4-0 and the game just might be over. Gray is also at 27 pitches in the inning. Two balls to Infante, a foul ball, another foul on a high fastball out of the zone ... and a 6-3 grounder to escape the inning. A’s are still in it, but I’ll be surprised if Gray comes out for the fifth. He’s been a one-pitch pitcher tonight and you can’t live off fastballs alone. Well, unless you’re Walter Johnson.

Twelve up, 12 down for Verlander; just 51 pitches, 34 for strikes.

Fifth inning

Well, tells you what I know. Gray is back out there. I get that he’s only at 74 pitches, but he’s facing the 9-1-2 hitters, which means it will be the third time around for the top of the order. We’ll see. Gray survives a leadoff walk to Kelly and intentional walk to Cabrera by getting Fielder on a comebacker to end the inning.

Verlander averaged 12.7 swing-and-misses per game in the regular season. He’s at 17, with six strikeouts, and he’s still perfect after another easy inning. Pure domination. Don't think there's been a hard-hit ball off him.

Sixth inning

Not sure why Melvin waited for Gray to allow two more baserunners before taking him out. Otero almost escapes the jam, getting Infante to hit a hard grounder to third baseman Josh Donaldson, but Donaldson’s throw to turn the double play is in the dirt and Alberto Callaspo can’t turn it, allowing a run to score. Donaldson was an MVP candidate but hasn’t done anything in the series, hitting .158 with no extra-base hits and failing to turn a pretty easy double play there.

So the story now is pretty much just Verlander and his quest for perfection. And ... it ends after 16 batters. A 3-2 fastball to Josh Reddick is way outside. Vogt flies to deep right-center and Coco Crisp flies routinely to left. Maybe the A’s should try laying down a bunt in front of Cabrera or something. Or Fielder. Nine outs to go for the no-hitter. Right now, I’m thinking I'd bet on it.

Seventh inning

Did you know that from May 11 through Aug. 27 Verlander had a 4.49 ERA? OK, you probably did, since there a lot of "What’s wrong with Justin Verlander?" stories cropping up there. At one point, he said he found a flaw in his mechanics, although that was late July or early August and he didn't really turn it around until September.

Maybe it will be a minor blessing in disguise for the Tigers though, since Verlander threw 20 fewer innings this year than 2012 and 33 fewer than 2011, and he struggled at times in both postseasons (although in total pitches, he only threw 76 fewer this season than last season).

Donaldson whiffs swinging on 96 mph high-inside heat. Jed Lowrie flies out to left. Then Yoenis Cespedes ends the no-hit bid with a sharp single up the middle. No, Iglesias wouldn't have gotten to it, either. Verlander recovers by striking out Seth Smith on a curveball that Ted Williams in 1941 couldn’t have hit. Two amazing clutch performances we've seen these two nights, first from Adam Wainwright and now Verlander.

Eighth inning

Who would you say had more pressure tonight? I’m not saying either team felt it, but the A’s had that Game 5 history to overcome -- five straight Game 5 losses in the Division Series in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2012. On the other hand, the Tigers have the weight of expectation and star talent -- that they should win, that they can’t afford to miss another postseason opportunity with guys like Verlander, Cabrera and Max Scherzer at their peaks.

In the bottom of the eighth, Reddick singles with two outs, but then Verlander strikes out Vogt -- he threw him four straight curveballs. I think Vogt could face Verlander a hundred times and not get a hit. The cameras show Verlander getting handshakes and little man hugs from his teammates. He's going to be done after 111 pitches, two hits, one walk and 10 strikeouts. In four starts against the A's the past two postseasons, Verlander has allowed one earned run in 31 innings with 43 strikeouts. Fair to say the A's hope never to see him again in October.

Ninth inning

After Grant Balfour retires the Tigers in order, it's up to Joaquin Benoit to put the finishing touches on Verlander's masterpiece. The A's will have the top of their order up.

Lowrie singles with two outs, giving A's fans one last bit of life. A bloop and a blast ... or hit batter and a blast. Cespedes is hit by a 2-2 changeup, although the Tigers thought he might have swung. So it's up to Smith (why is he batting ahead of 30-homer guy Moss?). Hard to stay within yourself here and not swing for the fences. Benoit struck out Smith to end Game 4 -- after Smith fouled off several pitches -- also when he was the tying run.

Key to Benoit is timing that fastball and laying off the changeup. Ball, strike, fastball up. Hitter's count. Fastball ... and Smith gets under it, Hunter makes the catch in right and Verlander finally breathes in the Detroit dugout.

Detroit is moving on to the American League Championship Series again, and the A's suffer the indignity of a sixth straight Game 5 loss in the ALCS.