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October 11, 2013
What made Verlander so tough in Game 5?

OAKLAND -- Thursday night marked the eighth game in which A's third baseman Josh Donaldson has faced Justin Verlander in his career. The first seven included Verlander's complete-game shutout in Game 5 of last year's ALDS, his seven scoreless innings in Game 2 this year, a seven-inning, two-hit outing in a regular-season game last May and another regular-season game last September in which Verlander threw six innings and did not give up a run.

And Donaldson still had this to say about Verlander's performance in Thursday's Game 5 -- eight shutout innings that lifted the Tigers to a 3-0 win and a third consecutive ALCS: "That was the best I've seen him."

Verlander did not allow a baserunner until Josh Reddick's one-out walk in the sixth and didn't give up a hit until Yoenis Cespedes grounded a single back up the middle with two outs in the seventh. He allowed two hits total and struck out 10. He threw 111 pitches.

Among them were his normal assortment of mid-90s fastballs, big-breaking curves and the occasional changeup diving away from left-handers. It is an assortment of pitches the A's have gotten very familiar with over the past few seasons and yet -- when it's mattered most -- have not been able to conquer.

And it has been their misfortune to encounter Verlander the past two years exactly when it has mattered the most. In four ALDS starts against them this year and last, Verlander has allowed one run in 31 innings. None have come in the last 30, a postseason record against the A's. Over the four starts, Verlander has allowed 13 hits and struck out 43.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland was asked Thursday night to explain this run of dominance, and he answered honestly.

"I don't have an answer for that," Leyland said.

What, in fact, was it that made Verlander so good Thursday night? That had Donaldson speaking in superlatives and the A's hitters looking simply overmatched for most of the game?

"He was being him," said catcher Stephen Vogt, who had the best at-bat off Verlander in Game 2 (a 10-pitch battle that ended in a strikeout) but went hitless in three at-bats this time with two strikeouts. "Mixing his pitches, locating his fastball up, down. Never really coming over the middle of the plate."

While Verlander managed to avoid missing over the heart of the plate, Donaldson said it still seemed "he was just throwing everything for strikes." That included the biting curve, which Verlander used repeatedly to steal strikes early in counts when the A's were likely looking for a fastball. Conversely, that ability to throw the curveball for a strike made the fastballs Verlander did throw that much more effective.

"When he's elevating the fastball that's just maybe above the strike zone, it's tough because you have to almost have your sights raised a little on him because (of the) curveball," Donaldson said. "He makes it tough on you. The only time you're going to get to him is if he's getting himself in trouble. And he didn't do that tonight."

Instead, when the A's did get a runner on base, Verlander knuckled down and made the pitches he needed to get himself out of trouble. Only once all night did the A's get a man on base with less than two outs -- Reddick's walk. Verlander then got Vogt to fly out on the fourth pitch of an at-bat that featured all fastballs at either 96 or 97 miles an hour, and ended the inning on Coco Crisp's flyout on a fastball at 97 mph.

"That was the most frustrating part, where we couldn't get him out of the stretch," said Reddick. "Pitching out of the windup for a guy like that is something that he builds on. I felt like if we got him out of the stretch one time with nobody out, that was going to be a big thing for us. But it seemed like we did it every time with two outs, and he was able to get out of it."

Manager Bob Melvin said what surprised him the most about Verlander's performance was how many strikeouts he recorded on fastballs. Seven of his 10 strikeouts came on fastballs, most of them swung through on strike three, which took Melvin aback "because we're a very good fastball-hitting team."

Brandon Moss, who accounted for three of the strikeouts on fastballs, explained it this way: "That's what happens when you're in a two-strike count against a guy throwing a nasty breaking ball, a good changeup and a four-seam fastball that's rising. You get caught in between, you get caught kind of guessing, you get caught looking for pitches and he can throw any of them."

Moss then gave a wry chuckle while adding: "He was good."

It wasn't always the case this year, as Verlander admittedly battled mechanical issues while going 13-12 while recording a 3.46 ERA a full run higher than in his Cy Young and MVP season of 2011. He said before the series, though, that he felt he'd corrected things for his final few starts of the regular season. He hasn't allowed a run in four starts.

"He's getting downhill now," Leyland said. "He's back in a really good rhythm."

Verlander, meanwhile, said he decided to lean on his fastball after seeing the A's swings against it in the first couple innings. "I was going to make those guys show they could do something with the fastball before I went to other stuff," he said. "You got to keep guys off-balance. (But) when I needed a big pitch, that's what I went to because of the results I was having."

Verlander was asked in several different ways to account for the success he had Thursday and against the A's in the past two postseasons. He said the environment at the Coliseum "has a lot to do with it." He said he was focused in this game simply on pitch execution, not mechanics, as he was for so much of the season. He said he woke up Thursday with the knowledge in his head that "a big game is coming."

But the first, and most simple, explanation that he gave was this:

"I'm pitching the way I'm supposed to."

-- Matt Kawahara

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About Bay Area Baseball

Matt KawaharaMatt Kawahara was born in Sacramento and attended McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley, where he wrote for the independent student paper The Daily Californian. He graduated from Cal in 2010 and started at The Sacramento Bee as a summer intern. He joined The Bee’s sports staff in fall 2011.
Phone: (916) 321-1015.
On Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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