OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Justin Verlander struck out eight and the Detroit Tigers capitalized on two wild pitches by Jarrod Parker, taking a 2-0 lead over the Oakland Athletics through six innings in the decisive Game 5 of their AL division series Thursday night.
With the season at stake for both teams, Austin Jackson lined a double off the wall in left-center to score Omar Infante in the second inning. Jackson then stole second, advanced to third on Quintin Berry's bunt and scored on Parker's second wild pitch to quiet a yellow-towel twirling crowd announced at 36,393 in a sold-out Oakland Coliseum.
Verlander allowed baserunners in three of the six innings but never lost his grip. The reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner was at his dominating best, working quickly and overpowering hitters, looking every bit like Detroit's ace.
Oakland had struck out 47 times in the series, the most of any postseason matchup in franchise history that lasted five games. The previous most was 42 in the 1974 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The A's were looking to become the ninth team to win a best-of-five series after losing the first two games.
They don't have to look far — or far back — for the last time, either. After dropping the first two at home, the Bay Area rival San Francisco Giants beat the Reds for the third straight game in Cincinnati earlier Thursday to advance to the NL championship series.
Even though they were at home, Oakland faced perhaps an ever bigger challenge in the winner-take-all finale against Verlander.
The hard-throwing right-hander struck out Coco Crisp and Stephen Drew before Yoenis Cespedes doubled to the left-center gap in the first. Then Seth Smith, who hit a game-tying two-run double in the ninth to lead the A's back in Game 4, hit a weak grounder back to Verlander on the first pitch.
In the second, Brandon Moss drew a two-out walk. After catcher Alex Avila briefly lost a pitch that Verlander bounced in the dirt, he threw out Moss trying to take second.
Wild pitches proved to be Parker's only major blemishes.
Infante singled leading off the first, took second on a wild pitch and scored on Jackson's double. After Jackson moved over on Berry's bunt, Parker threw a wild pitch that got by catcher Derek Norris to hand Detroit a 2-0 lead.
The last A's pitcher to throw two wild pitches in a postseason game was Dan Haren in a Game 4 loss in the ALCS against Detroit on Oct. 14, 2006.
Verlander retired eight straight until Moss' two-out single in the fifth. Norris worked a full-count that brought the calm crowd roaring back to its feet until Verlander struck him out swinging on a 98 mph fastball high in the zone.
The Tigers were looking to advance to the AL championship series for the second straight season. They lost to the Texas Rangers in six games last year. Oakland was swept by the Tigers in four games in its last trip to the championship series in 2006.
The rematch of Game 1 starters featured contrasting credentials.
Parker, another Oakland rookie, allowed all three runs in 6 1-3 innings in a 3-1 loss. The right-hander faced a daunting challenge to keep pace with Verlander, who allowed a leadoff home run by Crisp in seven innings in Game 1, showing his usual dominance that led Detroit manager Jim Leyland to predict the finale "will probably be decided with Verlander in the game."
"I don't have anybody better than him," Leyland said before the game. "And if they get to him that much, we'll probably be in trouble."
Verlander is the fifth pitcher to start a winner-take-all playoff game the year after winning a Cy Young. In all four previous instances, that pitcher's team lost the game.
The four pitchers were Steve Carlton (1981 Phillies), David Cone (1995 Yankees), Barry Zito (2003 Athletics) and Roy Halladay (2011 Phillies).
When Detroit arrived in the Bay Area this week, a Coliseum celebration seemed to be only a matter of time after taking the first two games at home.
Then again, this A's team has accomplished some impressive feats all season, including a major league-best 14 walk-off wins in the regular season — plus No. 15 on Wednesday night, when they rallied from two runs down in the ninth off closer Jose Valverde for a stunning 4-3 victory. They won three straight from the two-time reigning AL champion Texas Rangers to win the AL West crown on the final day of the season.
Thursday night was the sixth straight game that Oakland's visiting clubhouse was prepped for a clinching celebration, with plastic sheets that cover the lockers and floors repacked each time, along with bottles of bubbly waiting to be popped.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP