By Matt Kawahara, The Sacramento Bee –
OAKLAND, Calif. — A night earlier, in the chaotic moments after the Oakland A’s forced the American League Division Series to a decisive Game 5, outfielder Seth Smith had been asked to qualify the “magic” the A’s seemed to possess in such abundance.
The answer he gave had nothing to do with the supernatural. “At some point,” Smith reasoned, “it’s got to just be good baseball.”
His explanation came with a flip side. And as the A’s fell 6-0 to the Detroit Tigers in the winner-take-all game of the ALDS, their fun-park ride of a season reaching its end on a chilly Thursday night, there was nothing mysterious about it.
Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander gave a masterful pitching performance, striking out 11 in a four-hit shutout, to send his team to the A.L. Championship Series and the A’s, who finally ran out of eleventh-hour comebacks, into next year.
It will be remembered as an improbable and exhilarating season in Oakland.
The A’s traded their top three pitchers for prospects over the offseason, lost starting third baseman Scott Sizemore for the season on the first day of spring training and were picked by many experts to finish at the bottom of the A.L. West.
They were eight games under .500 in early June. They shuffled through a series of first basemen, had a converted catcher playing third, and finished the season with five rookies in their starting rotation because of injuries and the suspension of their most veteran pitcher.
But in the second half of the season, no team won more games or hit more home runs than the A’s, who nonetheless trailed the first-place Texas Rangers by five games in the West with nine left. The A’s made the deficit up on the final day, beating the Rangers before a raucous crowd that had caught onto what was unfolding right under its nose.
The A’s finished with 94 wins and made the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when they lost in the ALCS to these same Tigers.
Following their own narrative, the A’s fell behind the Tigers in the division series, 2-0, and then tied it. They mounted a furious ninth-inning rally in Game 4 to push the series to the brink. They did so knowing Verlander, the Tigers’ ace, lurked in Game 5.
The best pitcher and MVP of the league in 2011, Verlander entered the game having allowed three earned runs total in his last five starts, winning them all, including Game 1 against the A’s, in which he outdueled rookie Jarrod Parker.
Again the A’s countered with Parker, one of the prospects they acquired in the offseason trades, who arrived from Triple A in April and won 13 games at 23 years old. He would throw to catcher Derek Norris, also 23, who last year was playing in Double A.
Detroit struck first. Omar Infante singled to lead off the third and moved up on a wild pitch. Austin Jackson hammered a double to left-center, scoring Infante. After Jackson moved to third on a bunt, Parker threw a fastball in the dirt that Norris tried to backhand. It skipped past him, and Jackson scampered home to give the Tigers a two-run lead.
Parker allowed nothing more through the sixth. But Verlander, who led the majors in strikeouts this year for the second consecutive season, was dominant, striking out six through the first four innings in creative ways.
Coco Crisp, leading off the first, swung through a changeup at 86 mph.
Stephen Drew whiffed on a 96-mph fastball. Yoenis Cespedes then lined a fastball into left-center for a double, but the A’s would not have another hit until the fifth inning.
A sense of finality stirred in the seventh. With runners on first and third and one out and the Tigers still leading 2-0, Jackson hit a line drive that A’s second baseman Cliff Pennington leapt for. It glanced off his glove and into right field.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson sank into a crouch and a hush fell over the announced crowd of 36,393 like a pall as Jhonny Peralta came in to score the first of four runs in the inning. Ryan Cook hit Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded to force in a run.
Fittingly, Verlander took the mound in the bottom of the inning to face the middle of the A’s order and sent them down quietly.
Cespedes popped out. Smith was frozen by a 79-mph curveball. And Josh Reddick looked at a 95-mph fastball for strike three.
Eight days before, the A’s had punctuated their ascent to the division crown by mobbing each other on the infield. Thursday night, as Smith grounded out to end it, the Tigers did the same in nearly the exact same spot.
The crowd, at first, booed. Then they began to cheer, many waving their gold towels, and the A’s players filtered slowly out of their dugout, doffing their caps, as a voice sounded over the public address system: “One more round of applause,” it said, “for a great season.”