DETROIT -- Technically, the A's hold home-field advantage in this American League Division Series. But when Justin Verlander opens a postseason series on the mound at Comerica Park, it's his game.
Fittingly, it was a game the Tigers pretty much had to have.
It was the AL Division Series opener, but with this year's best-of-five format putting Games 3-5 in Oakland, Saturday night amounted to a must-win for Detroit. Verlander pitched up to the occasion, striking out a postseason-best 11 batters over seven innings in a 3-1 Tigers win.
It marked the second time in as many postseasons Verlander fanned 11 batters in a game. He fanned 11 Yankees in Game 3 of the 2011 ALDS. No other Major League pitcher has a double-digit strikeout game since San Francisco's Tim Lincecum fanned 10 Rangers in Game 5 of the 2010 World Series. No other Tiger in history has two postseason games with double-digit strikeouts.
"They're all important, but you have to win when Justin's on the mound. That's the bottom line," said Alex Avila, whose solo homer built a cushion for his starter after the Tigers manufactured their first two runs.
The Tigers won last year's Division Series over the Yankees without a Verlander victory in the opener, but rain had a bigger role in that than anything else. More importantly, that series opened on the road.
This was different. Only the Yankees had a better record at home than Detroit, and the Cardinals were the only team besides the Tigers to make the postseason with a losing record on the road. If the Tigers hold serve at home, they'll head west with three tries at one win in Oakland to close it out.
"Especially the home ones, you want to win," Verlander said, "but we know [with the two-and-three format], the first one's a big one, especially in a short series."
Four pitches in, as a stunned sellout crowd of 43,323 watched Coco Crisp's fly ball clear the right-field fence, it didn't feel like an advantage. Four innings in, as Verlander worked with a lead but with 79 pitches on his count, it was an uneasy confidence.
By the sixth, as Verlander hit Avila's mitt time and again around the outside corner and coaxed strikes out of plate umpire Jim Reynolds, the roar from the crowd reflected the building confidence.
The swings and misses that followed from A's hitters reflected the frustration of a game plan gone awry.
"I think we were a little frustrated, yeah," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said.
When the A's faced Verlander here a few weeks ago, they milked 122 pitches from him over six innings by fouling off 33 pitches. Verlander wanted them to chase pitches this time, and they seemingly knew it. He had to show he could put pitches where he wanted them first. A mistake-pitch home run and two walks to Oakland's first seven batters didn't help.
"We were trying to see how aggressive they were going to be, especially early on," Avila said. "That, coupled with not being able to get ahead of some guys early in the count, led to that pitch count. They were laying off some tough pitches and still fouling off, having some good at-bats up there.
"But once we got the lead, I think he was able to relax a little bit, and then they started swinging the bat a little bit more and then we were able to get them to chase a little bit."
Part of the problem early, manager Jim Leyland said, was two extra days' rest for a pitcher who thrives on routine. Verlander times his warm-up routine at home down to the minute. Give him a week between starts and he has to find ways to stay fresh.
Though the A's worked 61 pitches out of Verlander over the first three innings, he ended each with swinging strikeouts. Once Verlander got through the A's lineup the second time around, he settled in. The A's waited him out, but didn't like what they found.
Usually, it was strike three on that third-base side of the plate.
"That was one of the places I was able to kind of feel my spot a little bit, execute my pitch," Verlander said. "I felt like my ball was running a lot tonight, so down and away to a lefty or down and in to a righty was an easier spot for me to hit."
Verlander got Brandon Moss swinging for the third time leading off the sixth inning, then spotted a 98-mph fastball off the outside corner on Josh Reddick and a 99-mph heater in on Josh Donaldson to end the inning.
Oakland's third, fourth and fifth hitters combined to go 0-for-8 with a walk off Verlander, striking out five times.
Seth Smith and Derek Norris both swung and missed at fastballs in the seventh, sparking memories of Doug Fister's nine consecutive strikeouts two weeks ago. Verlander couldn't get Cliff Pennington to offer at ball four, but retired Crisp on a groundout to third to close his outing.
Whatever momentum the A's got from Crisp's leadoff homer didn't last through the first inning. Once Austin Jackson's chopper deflected off Stephen Drew's glove and into left field, Jackson had a leadoff double. After Quintin Berry squibbed a grounder off Donaldson's glove down the third-base line, the A's felt fortunate to give up only a run by inducing a double play from Miguel Cabrera.
Berry came up big again in the third inning. His roller to first base left A's starter Jarrod Parker scrambling toward first. Berry beat him out before Parker's fielding error allowed Omar Infante to round third and score, putting Detroit in front for good.