Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera (24) celebrates with teammate Torii Hunter (48) after he scored a two run home run that also scored Hunter in the fourth inning of Game 5 of an American League baseball division series against the Oakland Athletics in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)AP2013
OAKLAND, Calif. – After a season of ups and downs, constant adjustments and, even questions about whether he could still be that dominant pitcher, Justin Verlander left no doubts he is every bit an ace for the Detroit Tigers.
The AL Central champions rode their star right-hander back to the AL championship series after he pitched another spectacular Game 5 clincher in the division series at Oakland, carrying a no-hit bid into the seventh inning of a 3-0 victory Thursday night.
"Big-game pitcher, that's something people want to talk about. I just go out there when my team needs me the most," Verlander said. "That's what I've worked so hard for this year, to be able to get to this point."
With a 13-12 regular-season record, Verlander had just one victory in his final 10 starts and the Tigers lost in nine of those outings. Nobody is thinking about any of that now that Detroit moved a step closer to a return trip to the World Series.
Miguel Cabrera provided all the offense Verlander needed with one sweet swing, hitting a two-run homer in the fourth against rookie Sonny Gray as Detroit eliminated the A's again.
"We won the game, that's all it's about," Cabrera said. "We want to win a World Series, man, that's our goal."
Joaquin Benoit retired Seth Smith on a fly ball with two on in the ninth to close out the deciding game of the series. The Tigers became the first team to reach the ALCS in three straight years since the New York Yankees reached four years in a row from 1998-2001.
Anibal Sanchez will start Game 1 in Boston on Saturday. The Tigers went 4-3 against the Red Sox this year, but they have never faced each other in the postseason.
Detroit staved off elimination at home in Game 4, overcoming a three-run deficit on Tuesday. Behind Verlander, the Tigers never trailed in shutting out Oakland in Game 5 for the second straight October.
The big right-hander gave up a clean, two-out single to Yoenis Cespedes in the seventh to end his chance at the third no-hitter in postseason history. The hit hardly fazed him, however.
"We got pretty close there, seven innings is pretty unbelievable," catcher Alex Avila said. "To be honest, I thought we had a chance. He had the stuff for it, he had no-hit stuff."
On a night he allowed only two hits and three baserunners in eight innings, Verlander made it a postseason-record 30 straight scoreless innings against one team since Coco Crisp hit a leadoff home run for the A's in Game 1 last October.
Just 364 days earlier, Verlander tossed a four-hit, 6-0 masterpiece in Game 5 in this very ballpark, a 122-pitch performance for his first career postseason shutout and complete game.
He nearly matched last year's shutout with a spectacular 111-pitch outing in a rematch of his thrilling pitcher's duel with rookie Sonny Gray five days earlier in Game 2.
"This was better because that one last year was a long, long time ago. This one is pretty current," manager Jim Leyland said, smiling, "so I'll take this one tonight."
Aching slugger Cabrera connected in the fourth, a drive into the left-field seats for his first homer since Sept. 17 and just his third extra-base hit in 99 at-bats. That ended a 20-inning scoreless streak by the Tigers at the Coliseum.
Gray danced with danger from the start with stuff not nearly as crisp as just five nights before when he matched zeros with the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner.
This time, Verlander didn't allow a baserunner until Josh Reddick drew a one-out walk in the sixth — but the no-hit bid remained until Cespedes' single the next inning. The hardest hit ball was a fly to the center field warning track by Stephen Vogt in the sixth.
"Everything about it is frustrating. We're a better team than that," Vogt said. "We deserved better. We just didn't get it done."
Verlander struck out 10, giving him 21 Ks in these two starts. He has 43 strikeouts in his four playoff outings against Oakland the past two years.
The A's saw their season end at the hands of Detroit for the third time in as many postseasons, including in a four-game sweep in the 2006 ALCS.
Oakland has lost its last six winner-take-all Game 5s and fell to 1-12 in potential clinchers since 2000. The A's struck out 57 times for the most in a best-of-five playoff series.
Verlander earned the nod for the decider after Game 1 winner Max Scherzer pitched in relief of an 8-6, season-saving win Game 4 in Detroit.
When asked before the game about his bullpen availability, Leyland nodded his head and quipped, "Verlander, he's available."
"He was on it early," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "We weren't getting very good swings on him. I thought maybe when it started to get darker, we would get better swings, but he kept throwing fastballs. Surprising how many fastballs he threw that we swung through, because we're a very good fastball hitting team."
Gray, meanwhile, looked overmatched this time. He wiped his brow and never got comfortable. Then, he broke his left thumb on Prince Fielder's fifth-inning comebacker. Melvin went with Gray over 18-game winner and 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, who yielded three first-inning runs to lose Game 1.
These Game 5s are becoming awfully familiar for both sides in their recent October rivalry.
Detroit held another clinching party in the visiting clubhouse of the Oakland Coliseum, where a raucous crowd of 46,959 swirled yellow towels until Benoit threw his hands in the air following the final out.
The 93-win Tigers are determined to take the next step and win a championship after being swept in four games of the 2012 World Series by the San Francisco Giants.
"That's the motivation that we've been looking for, that we've had all year," Verlander said.
Torii Hunter hollered for all to hear in the clubhouse: "Let's go, boys! Way to fight!"
The 23-year-old Gray, pitching to chants of "Sonny! Sonny!" in his 12th career start, returned for the sixth inning at 92 pitches, but was done once he allowed consecutive singles to Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta. Omar Infante then drove in the third run with a fielder's choice grounder off Dan Otero.
"Obviously the fastball command wasn't there and everything wasn't as sharp as you'd like," Gray said.
Rookie starters have lost their last six winner-take-all postseason games since Daisuke Matsuzaka beat Cleveland in the 2007 ALCS for Boston.
This marks another disappointing exit for the low-budget A's, who have baseball's 27th smallest payroll at $71.1 million after having the lowest at $59.5 million last year.
"Right now it's a little emotional, a little sad and a little frustrating," Crisp said. "I didn't want to have to say goodbye so soon to the guys I went to battle with. It's hard."