OAKLAND -- For three innings Thursday, Game 5 of the American League Division Series felt like a continuation of Game 2 the previous week, with two hard-throwing right-handers trading zeroes and a tense crowd hanging on every pitch.
And then Sonny Gray, the precocious A's rookie, blinked first, allowing a two-run home run to Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera with one out in the fourth. And after that, it began to resemble a more distant, less pleasant memory for the A's.
The Tigers' Justin Verlander, who nearly a year ago to the day in this same park threw a four-hit shutout in Game 5 of the 2012 A.L. Division Series, dropped the curtain on the A's season again Thursday. This time, Verlander allowed two hits over eight scoreless innings to pitch the Tigers into the A.L. Championship Series for the third consecutive year, while the A's saw their season end in a 3-0 loss at the Coliseum.
It was a quieting finish to a series the A's had been within nine outs of winning in Game 4, when they held a one-run lead going into the seventh inning only to see the Tigers pull out an 8-6 win. It ended a season in which the A's won 96 regular-season games, second-most in the American League, following their surprise run to the 2012 postseason with a year that seemed to indicate that was no fluke.
Still, they could not reverse their recent fortunes in the postseason. The A's have now lost nine of their last 10 playoff series dating back to the 1990 World Series, as well as 12 of their last 13 potential postseason clinchers. They have also lost six consecutive winner-take-all games in the playoffs, all in the ALDS and in the last 14 seasons.
Two, now, have come at the hand of Verlander, about whom A's manager Bob Melvin said in the lead-up to Thursday's game: "We've run into him, for whatever reason, at the wrong time too many times." In four games over the past two division series, Verlander's line against the A's reads: 31 innings, 13 hits, one run, seven walks and 43 strikeouts.
Over the last 30 of those innings, Verlander hasn't allowed a run. For the first six innings Thursday, he did not allow a hit. Yoenis Cespedes broke up the no-hit bid in the seventh with a two-out single, and Josh Reddick had the only other hit against Verlander, a two-out single in the eighth.
The Tigers turned to closer Joaquin Benoit for the ninth, with Verlander having thrown 111 pitches, and after retiring the first two hitters of the inning, Benoit allowed a double to Jed Lowrie and hit Yoenis Cespedes with a 2-2 pitch to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Seth Smith.
But with the crowd on its feet, waving yellow towels and chanting "Let's go, Oakland," Smith lifted a high fly ball to shallow right field that Torii Hunter secured for the final out.
Verlander's history against the A's, perhaps, made Cabrera's homer in the fourth seem momentous. Gray, too, had not given up a hit through his first three innings. But Torii Hunter broke up the no-hitter with a one-out single up the middle, and Gray then left a 1-0 fastball up and over the plate to Cabrera.
Cabrera's swing produced a towering fly ball to left field, and Yoenis Cespedes drifted slowly back to the wall, poised as if to leap, before watching the ball sail over his head and the fence. It was Cabrera's first home run since Sept. 17, and just his third extra-base hit since Aug. 26.
Gray then retired Prince Fielder on a groundout before the next three hitters reached base on two singles and a walk, getting the A's bullpen working for the first time. Gray coaxed a groundout from Omar Infante, but he walked off the mound having thrown 33 pitches in the inning, running his total for the game to 74.
Still, Gray pitched into the sixth, when Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta hit back-to-back singles to start the inning. That brought Melvin out of the dugout and Dan Otero out of the bullpen, with Gray departing after 98 pitches and to an appreciative hand from the crowd of 46,959, his eight scoreless innings in Game 2 still fresh in their minds.
Otero, the sinker-baller, induced groundouts from the next two hitters, but the A's could turn neither into a double play. The second -- Infante's sharp grounder to Josh Donaldson with runners on first and third and one out -- scored Martinez as Donaldson's low throw to second was bobbled by Alberto Callaspo on the exchange.
That gave the Tigers and Verlander a 3-0 lead, with the A's still looking for their first hit. They finally got it when Cespedes grounded a two-out single back up the middle in the seventh, only to be stranded as Seth Smith struck out swinging at a big curveball. It gave Verlander 29 consecutive scoreless postseason innings against Oakland -- one more than Christy Mathewson for the most all-time against the A's.
The streak, which Verlander increased to 30 innings before departing -- began in Game 1 of last year's ALDS, a series the Tigers won with Verlander throwing 122 pitches while striking out 11 in his complete-game shutout. The A's struck out 50 times total in that five-game series, establishing an Oakland-era record.
They eclipsed it Thursday, with their 11 strikeouts giving them a total of 57 for the series. Verlander recorded 10 of them, his last coming on his final hitter of the night, as Stephen Vogt -- the A's walk-off hero in Game 2 -- went down swinging at a curveball in the dirt.
Ultimately, it was Benoit whom the Tigers rushed to meet in the middle of the infield on Thursday night following Smith's flyout to end it. But there was no mistaking who was responsible for sending the A's into the offseason. For the second year in a row, it was Verlander.
-- Matt Kawahara