Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander pitches to the Oakland Athletics during the first inning of Game 1 in their MLB ALDS playoff baseball series in Detroit, Michigan October 6, 2012. (Reuters/REBECCA COOK)
DETROIT - This was a game the Detroit Tigers had to have, otherwise they would have had a big headache.
As it turns out now, it’s the Oakland A’s who may have a big pain.
The Tigers defeated the A’s 3-1 in Game 1 of their best-of-five American League Division Series on Saturday.
The man who got the Tigers there was their ace Justin Verlander.
The importance of the game was framed in a simple scenario.
With the ALDS taking on a new format ‹ the first two games in Detroit and the next three in Oakland – Game 1 was vital to both teams.
An Oakland win and it would likely not have to face Verlander again.
With the win, the Tigers are now up and if a fifth game is necessary, Verlander will pitch.
No question the A’s had hopes Verlander would experience the same type of trouble he has had in previous years when he opened a playoff series.
The Tigers starter was 0-3 in previous opening games.
Verlander had another Cy Young-worthy season at 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA, although he’s hardly been lights out in the playoffs. Overall, Verlander is 3-3 with a 5.57 ERA.
But it was the good Verlander, make that the very good Verlander, who showed up Saturday and the longer he was in the game, the better he got.
Verlander gave the Tigers some worrisome moments early, but by the time he was warmed up, he fried the A’s, throwing some nasty, filthy stuff.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “His stuff is what it is, very good stuff with a bunch of above-average major league pitches. Nothing surprises you with him.”
He finished with 11 strikeouts, going seven innings giving up three hits and only one run, that one a leadoff home run to the A’s Coco Crisp.
He threw a lot of pitches in the first three innings, but found his rhythm, control and velocity. He topped out a 99 mph.
“The big thing was this was his seventh day,” Leyland said. “I think it took him a while to get back into sync. He’s a real routine guy.
“But as the game went on he got his command real good and obviously pitched a fantastic game.”
The A’s hoped they could make Verlander throw a lot of pitches. Verlander threw 121 before he left the game.
“Most good starters you try to get to them before they get into their rhythm,” said A’s coach Bob Melvin. “He got better as the game progressed and his velocity picked up as it always does with him.”
As Leyland said, though, it wasn’t as if the Tigers “blistered” A’s pitching around. Starter Jarrod Parker went 61/3 and only allowed two earned runs on seven hits.
The Tigers wasted several scoring opportunities but scored a run on an error, a double-play ball and the key hit of the night, a solo home run by Alex Avila in the fifth that gave Verlander some breathing room.
It was all Verlander needed and he got clean closeout innings from Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde.
Verlander went through a stretch where he struck out five A’s in succession.
”Early on was a bit of a battle for me,” Verlander said. “But that extra run really helped. It gives you a bit of confidence knowing one solo home run doesn’t beat you or tie the game.”
Leyland said he didn’t think Game 1 was a must-win game for the Tigers but there is a sense of relief the Tigers can now play for win No. 2 Sunday afternoon.
“Every post-season game has a feeling of a must-win game,” Verlander said.
“Especially the home ones. We know a two-and-three-game series, the first one’s a big one. That was as big win.”
Verlander said the four walks he gave up were “inexcusable.”
“But I started to find the strike zone a little more as the game went on and not just finding the zone but quality strikes and was able to get some guys out,” Verlander said. “That was the kind of groove I was working to find.”