OAKLAND — Rookie pitcher Sonny Gray would have had to match his electric postseason debut for the Athletics to have any chance against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers.
Even that might not have been enough the way Verlander dominated Oakland once again.
Gray gave up a two-run homer to Miguel Cabrera in the fourth inning that created a hole too big for the A’s to overcome against their playoff nemesis, and the Tigers won Game 5 of the AL division series, 3-0, on Thursday night to reach their third consecutive ALCS.
“I felt fine, just disappointed in the outcome,” Gray said. “Obviously the fastball command wasn’t there and everything wasn’t as sharp as you’d like, but overall I felt fine. We just came up short (Thursday).”
It was an all-too-familiar script for the A’s, shut out by Verlander 364 days ago in the fifth game of their 2012 division series. They managed just two hits in eight innings off Verlander this time and have gone a postseason-record 30 consecutive innings without a run against the Tigers’ ace.
Oakland has lost all six of its winner-take-all playoff games since the start of the 2000 season, including five at home. The A’s have dropped 12 of 13 games since 2000 when they had a chance to eliminate the opponent from the postseason.
“It’s frustrating,” said Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt. “Everything about it is frustrating. We’re a better team than that. We deserved better. We just didn’t get it done.”
Oakland hoped this year would be different as Gray began the game in similar fashion to Game 2, when he struck out nine in eight dazzling innings to help the A’s win 1-0. That performance led manager Bob Melvin to pick Gray over All-Star Bartolo Colon to start the decisive fifth game.
Gray didn’t allow a hit until Torii Hunter’s one-out single in the fourth. Cabrera followed with a shot over the left-field wall that was just his third extra-base hit in his last 99 at-bats.
“I tried to get it in on him a little bit and it stayed out over the plate a little too much,” Gray said. “Good hitters like that, they make you pay when you make mistakes.”
Gray did his best to keep the A’s in the game after that, pitching out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth and stranding two runners in the fifth on Prince Fielder’s comebacker that broke his left thumb. Gray stayed in and allowed back-to-back singles to open the sixth before being replaced by Dan Otero.
That led to a third run for Detroit when second baseman Alberto Callaspo bobbled a ball that cost Oakland a chance at an inning-ending double play.
Verlander was his usual self against the A’s in the postseason. Since allowing a leadoff homer to Coco Crisp in Game 1 last year, the right-hander has completely shut down Oakland.
“He just didn’t make any mistakes,” said shortstop Jed Lowrie. “Every time we got somebody on base, he made a pitch to get out of the inning. He owned the night.”
Verlander struck out four of the first six batters he faced and took a no-hit bid into the seventh before Yoenis Cespedes grounded a clean, two-out single to center.
The only other A’s hitter to reach safely against Verlander was Josh Reddick, who walked in the sixth and singled with two outs in the eighth.
Verlander struck out 10, giving him 43 in four postseason starts against Oakland over the last two postseasons. The A’s fanned 57 times against Detroit — the most ever in a best-of-five series.
“We weren’t getting very good swings on him,” Melvin said. “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.”
Oakland finally mounted a rally in the ninth, putting two runners on against Joaquin Benoit before Seth Smith flied out to right to end it.
“I should have hit it better than I did,” Smith said.
The A’s haven’t been this overmatched by a pitcher in the postseason since Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson tossed three straight shutouts against them in the 1905 World Series for the New York Giants. He added another scoreless inning to start the 1911 World Series and held the postseason record for most consecutive scoreless innings against an opponent with 28 until Verlander passed him.
While the series was lost Thursday night when the A’s hitters were overmatched by Verlander, it will likely be Game 4 in Detroit that haunts Oakland this offseason.
The A’s led that game 3-0 in the fifth and 4-3 in the seventh before losing 8-6 thanks to a disputed, game-tying homer by Victor Martinez that may have been aided by some overzealous fans, and a brilliant escape job in relief by Max Scherzer. Oakland was unable to score in the eighth inning off Scherzer despite loading the bases with no outs while trailing by one run.
“It’s easy to point at that,” Lowrie said. “We didn’t give them that game. They fought for that game. It’s easy to point at that as a missed opportunity. But I think they earned that win.”