October 11, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers' stars rescue postseason with their finest hour

When they had to have it, they got it. When pushed to the edge again, the Tigers dialed up the trusted stars who have delivered before. On the biggest night of the season, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera showed why they epitomize this team.

Through pain and pitfalls, they affixed their sneers and got it done. Verlander delivered one of the great clutch performances in franchise history, squeezing the angst out of a taut series and leading the Tigers to a 3-0 victory over the A’s Thursday night.

It was tense to the end, naturally, and it spawned another wild celebration. Goggles affixed, the Tigers sprayed champagne in a familiar scene in a familiar place, clinching in Oakland again. This was richly earned, although they couldn’t dance for long. They’re in the ALCS for the third straight year and open Saturday night in Boston, and you can’t be surprised by who led them there. But if you’ve charted the Tigers’ twisting path, at least you can be surprised by how it happened.

Cabrera has been a vision of pain for weeks now, his power sapped by injuries. All he did in the decisive Game 5 was hammer his first home run in nearly a month, a two-run shot that supplied an early 2-0 lead. From there, it was all Verlander, as dominant as ever, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Yeonis Cespedes’ two-out single broke it up but Verlander brushed it aside as if it were a mild nuisance. Turns out, that’s all it was, as he struck out 10 in eight innings and allowed only two hits.

“I can usually tell by the look on his face and his demeanor prior to a game when he’s zeroed in, and he was locked in tonight,” Jim Leyland said. “This was a big challenge, he did it last year, he’s done it on several occasions for us, and he did it once again.”

You could see it coming, mainly because Verlander could see it coming. Late in a wobbly regular season, he began to find his superstar form. Then he shut out the A’s for seven innings of Game 2 and further tormented them in Game 5. Going back to his dominance last year, including another shutout in Game 5, Verlander hurled a postseason-record 29 straight scoreless innings against the A’s.

This is why he never wavered during his struggles, and why Leyland never wavered in his support. The Red Sox are next and it should be a riveting championship series, with Anibal Sanchez to start Game 1. The Tigers will need to ratchet their offense quite a bit, but as long as they have arms like those attached to Verlander and Max Scherzer, they’ll be in it.

“That was awesome, that was one of the best of all time for me,” Torii Hunter said of Verlander’s effort. “That’s why he’s the Cy Young and MVP. He showed it.”

As the game started, nerves were jangling and the imagery was stark. The A’s sent their 23- year-old rookie, Sonny Gray, to the mound against the Tigers’ legendary warhorse, a rematch of their Game 2 duel. Gray won that one, although Verlander struck out 11 and pretty much confirmed he was back, not that a lot more confirmation was needed.

Nobody was quite sure where Verlander went during a bumpy 13-12 regular season, but his confidence never waned. Velocity down? Control shaky? Muscles achy? Verlander would only say, again and again, his goal was to be ready by the playoffs. So he tinkered with his mechanics, and now true to his plan and his persona, has unleashed in an incredible way.

This is what the guy does, and has done for years. But on this night, he was doing things no one could have imagined. He retired the first 16 Oakland batters, and his fastball was mesmerizing. At least, that’s how it looked to the A’s, who just kept flailing.

These are the moments the best players embrace, and make their own. And this is why the Tigers are World Series contenders, because through slumps and strains, they usually can count on their stars.

Cabrera has been hobbled for months with abdominal and groin strains that robbed him of his power. He’d slugged one home run since Aug. 26, until he stepped to the plate in the fourth inning and flicked his bat like old times, sending the ball over the left-field wall for a 2-0 lead. This was what the A’s had to fear, that the longer the series went, the better odds the Tigers’ giants would rise up.

Sure enough, in the biggest game of the season, it was Verlander and Cabrera, two of the best in baseball, shaking off whatever ailed them. Cabrera had four hits in the series, all singles, before his home run announced a thundering arrival, and revival.

Verlander actually looked revived several outings ago, and picked it right up in Game 2. That stellar effort was why Leyland had no problem juggling his rotation. Scherzer came in to help secure Game 4, which left Verlander to complete the comeback and wrap it up.

Nobody does it better. The Tigers are back where they were a year ago, going where they always expected to go, led by persistent and powerful stars who know the way so well.


Tigers starter Justin Verlander embraces closer Joaquin Benoit after the Tigers clinched the ALDS with a Game 5 victory over the Oakland A's Thursday. Verlander pitched eight scoreless innings in the 3-0 win. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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