OAKLAND, Calif. -- Underachievement stalked the Tigers most of the regular season and rendezvoused with them at the Oakland Coliseum for a couple of playoff nights this week. The presumption going into Thursday's decisive Game 5 was that putting Justin Verlander on the mound would take care of the problem, eliminating the A's and the overachievement that clung to them as if it had been pine-tarred to their back.
Presumptions, however, do not treat soaring-payroll, high-profile teams kindly. They devoured the Angels this year, and they spat in the Phillies' faces this time last autumn. After closer Jose Valverde surrendered Game 4 with a three-run ninth inning, the Tigers and Verlander had to stare down both the A's and a pending inquisition.
How does a team falter in the first round of the playoffs after combining the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, the man who in 2011 became the first starting pitcher in 25 years to win an MVP Award and a new slugger of the royal persuasion?
The question had to take a seat when Verlander was Verlander, the regular-season edition. The complete-game shutout could be a new October look for him. He had appeared in the postseason of 2006 and 2011 and produced pedestrian results. He had an aggregate ERA north of 5.00 and a 3-3 record that defined good fortune, not ace of the staff.
His Game 1 win over the A's began the makeover. Over 16 innings in this ALDS, Verlander allowed seven hits and one earned run, racking up 22 strikeouts.
“It's like a locomotive going at a high speed,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said of Verlander in his groove. Melvin's team may have been the ideal track for Verlander, given its record-breaking whiffs this season.
The next round will tell. The Tigers haven't gotten past it since their 2006 trek to the World Series, despite payroll escalation that put them in the company of the game's coastal big spenders
“I can't say I took the next step, I don't know,” Verlander said. "But like I talked about … just having experience and pitching big games and pitching in the postseason allowed me not to let my adrenaline get the best of me.”
A few minutes earlier, he had addressed the perception that the Tigers underperformed for long stretches of an 88-win regular season and, possibly, by letting Oakland with its rookie brigade force a Game 5 after being down 0-2.
“I felt like we should have been better. … I felt, and at times I said, we were inconsistent,” Verlander said.
“And coming down the last stretch, I think you found out what kind of team this is. When we had to win, we did. And it's a team full of veterans. We never worried about anything.”
The point of view directly contradicted what his manager had said before Game 4. Count the times Jim Leyland said he didn't value experience in a playoff team.
“Oh, I've never believed in that, I believe in talent. And somebody always has to win their first one,” he said. “I've never believed in that. I've had teams that didn't have any experience and teams ‑‑ people ask me about that. I really don't believe in that, to be honest with you. I believe in talent. And this has been a real good series so far. I thought they played a terrific game last night. Impeccable, really. [Inexperience] didn't have any effect on [Oakland] last night. I don't really believe in that stuff. A lot of people talk about it. It's good conversation, I guess, but I don't really, I don't believe in that.”
Five times, he said. It’s a good thing Leyland doesn't run a football team, or we might have to engage in an even more hackneyed conversation, about him and his star pitcher not being on the same page. But if you ever hear Jim Leyland trumpeting experience in the postseason, consider him thoroughly busted. Even in baseball, you have to be on the same page with yourself.
The takeaway from his commentary should be the belief in talent. The Tigers have it in bold-face and well-known quantities, the A’s in many Etch-a-Sketched parcels. So when it was over, there was Miguel Cabrera, of Triple Crown renown, deviating from his own celebration on the Coliseum field to tap his heart and point to the A's as they waved goodbye to their fans.
In the clubhouse, the Tigers gathered to bathe Verlander in ersatz bubbly, an accommodation of Cabrera’s alcohol-abuse history, but they kept the rest of the spraying kind of subdued. The most active celebrant appeared to be Prince Fielder’s son, taking full advantage of the beverage's zero-proof nature.
Maybe the tameness could be explained by the times. In a wild-card world, the spraying ritual has become as overdone as kindergarten graduation followed by first-grade moving-up ceremony, and then second-grade valedictory address. Or maybe the Tigers know to expect more of themselves now.
Superstition and history say they have to overcome their own star power. The last Triple Crown winner, Carl Yastrzemski, won a pennant with the Red Sox but lost the World Series to the Cardinals. If both the MVP award and a victory parade are in Cabrera's future, too, he'll be the first player to combine the two since Kirk Gibson in 1988.
Getting past Oakland and over Wednesday's ninth-inning collapse may help, as long as no one references the survival as experience in front of Leyland. Valverde certainly brought the classic closer's mentality to the memory.
“Last night is over,” he said amid a scrum of reporters, then poured some bubbly over his head in what appeared to be a cleansing ritual. He lowered the bottle, revealing that it wasn't the nasty-smelling faux bubbly. It had a Dom Perignon label. He had just squandered premium product. That's exactly what the Tigers need to avoid.