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LAND -- When the Detroit Tigers absolutely had to play their best baseball, they did exactly that, and maybe that's going to be their legacy in 2012. Never mind that they teased us for most of this season. Holes in the lineup, injuries in the rotation, headaches here, headaches there.
Flash forward to Thursday night when the Tigers threw themselves a wild little party after defeating the Oakland Athletics, 6-0, in a deciding Game 5 of an American League Division Series.
Sometimes the toughest rides are the sweetest. The Tigers didn't take over first place in the American League Central for good until their 155th game of the season. Maybe they were pacing themselves.
"It doesn't matter how you get there," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "It's where you end up. I've always felt great about this club. Some years you're going to have 95 wins. Some years you're not. You still have to find a way to do it."
He was speaking in a clubhouse filled with laughter and bear hugs after the Tigers had indeed gotten to the place they were supposed to be. Twenty-four hours after a gnawing ninth-inning meltdown, the Tigers handed the baseball to the best pitcher on earth.
"When we were trying to catch the White Sox, a lot of people thought we weren't going to do that," Avila said. "After yesterday's loss, I'm sure everybody in Detroit thought we weren't going to win today."
This latest most important victory of the season began with baseball's best pitcher. It ended there, too. Justin Verlander put his team on his back by sailing through the A's, mixing a 95-mph fastball with an 85-mph changeup, throwing both for strikes, keeping the A's off balance from start to finish.
He threw 122 pitches in a four-hit, 11-strikeout masterpiece that stands as the latest signature moment of his career. When he walked off the mound after the eighth inning with his pitch count at 111, he never thought about coming out.
"He had that look in his eye," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
Back to the journey.
"I felt like we should have been better," Verlander said. "We were inconsistent. We never let ourselves fall out of it. And coming down the last stretch, I think you found out what kind of team this is. When we had to win, we did."
Now they're back in the American League Championship Series for a second straight season.
"We got this far. We've had to work hard to do it," Leyland said. "We had to work hard to win the division. We certainly had to work hard to win this series. But you know what, I've been saying this since April. I like our club. Through thick and thin, I've been saying that I like our club. And I still like our club."
There were times this season when it was tempting to write the Tigers off. That was impossible to do because they simply had too much firepower and too much star power. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Verlander and Max Scherzer. Doug Fister and Austin Jackson.
Even in the worst of times -- the Tigers didn't clear .500 for good until their 85th game of the season -- Leyland said he always believed in his guys.
And here's the deal.
At this moment, they're a very tough draw. They've got arguably the best rotation in the playoffs even if Verlander won't be available until Game 3 of the ALCS (and potentially Game 7 as well). They have two franchise hitters in the middle of their order in Fielder and Cabrera. Even with some issues in the bullpen, the Tigers are plenty good enough to finish the deal.
"This whole last month of the season, we've been playing pressure games, where our backs are against the wall," Verlander said. "We won the games we needed to win. And I think that bodes extremely well for us as a team moving forward. And it's a team full of veterans. We never worried about anything. We just went out there and just said keep playing baseball and see where it ends up.
"That's why we play 162 games. It's a long season. It's a grind. And we ended up where we wanted to end up, and that's first place. And we ended up playing our best baseball to get there. I think the team playing the best baseball going into the postseason is the most dangerous."