By JANIE McCAULEY, Associated Press
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Once he finally made his way to the victorious visiting clubhouse, Justin Verlander's teammates greeted him with chants of "Cy Young!" and sprayed him in the face with bubbly.
Already among baseball's best starters, Verlander showed he sure can finish.
Detroit's ace and MVP bookended the AL division series with 11-strikeout gems, throwing a four-hitter in the decisive fifth game to get the Tigers back to the AL championship series for a second straight year with a 6-0 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Thursday night.
"I thought he might have thrown 300 pitches if he had to," slugger Prince Fielder said. "He wasn't coming out of the game. No way."
Verlander delivered a day after closer Jose Valverde failed to hold a ninth-inning lead as Detroit was pushed to the brink after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead back home at Comerica Park.
Verlander tossed his first career postseason shutout and complete game with a 122-pitch masterpiece.
"He had a look in his eye today," manager Jim Leyland said. "A complete-game look in his eye."
The Tigers will face either the New York Yankees or Baltimore Orioles, tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5 on Friday night in New York. Game 1 of the ALCS is scheduled for Saturday.
Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and MVP, was so sharp nobody in the bullpen ever got up to throw. He struck out 22 in his wins on both ends of this nail-biting series.
After squandering two chances to clinch the series, including blowing a two-run ninth-inning lead in Game 4, Leyland left it all up to Verlander just as he said he would.
"I think it's one of those things I expected to go nine innings," Verlander said. "In this situation, in a Game 5, I wanted to go all the way."
Austin Jackson hit an RBI double in the third and a run-scoring single as the Tigers added on with a four-run seventh. Fielder had an RBI single.
The Tigers are on to another ALCS despite getting just one RBI all series from Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera — on a bases-loaded hit by pitch, no less. Booed by the yellow towel-waving sellout crowd of 36,393 each time he stepped into the batter's box. Cabrera finished 5 for 20, and it was his blooper dropped by Coco Crisp in a 5-4 Game 2 victory Sunday that allowed two runs to score.
Leyland all but called Verlander's latest gem.
"Justin Verlander's a pretty tough chore for anybody," Leyland said.
The Detroit skipper gave the ball to his 17-game winner and said beforehand the Tigers would likely win or lose with the hard-throwing right-hander on the mound.
And, against the A's — or anybody else, for that matter — Verlander usually wins.
"This is where legends are made," catcher Alex Avila said. "Tonight, he basically put us on his back and said, 'We're not going to lose.'"
Verlander recorded the most strikeouts in a shutout of a winner-take-all postseason game, topping Sandy Koufax's 10 in the 1965 World Series against Minnesota.
"When you're going into pressure situations like this, there's nobody better to have on the mound than Justin," Jackson said.
Verlander followed up an 11-strikeout outing in Detroit's 3-1 Game 1 win Saturday with another overpowering performance in his 10th postseason start. He improved to 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA in three postseason starts against the A's and upped his career mark to 5-4 with 2.15 ERA in 10 starts at the Coliseum.
Verlander had allowed one earned run with a 0.69 ERA in beating the A's twice during the regular season.
"He's always tough. You go out there and you battle him the best that you can," Crisp said. "Today he had some of his best stuff of the year."
Detroit finally got to party in a visiting clubhouse that for the sixth straight game was prepped for a possible clinch celebration.
The Texas Rangers were in town last week needing one victory to win the AL West but dropped all three to lose the division to the surprising A's in Game No. 162.
On Wednesday night, plastic covering the floor and lockers was torn down in all of about 40 seconds after Valverde allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth as Oakland won with another walkoff in a season full of them.