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Verlander: Game 5 start 'not just another game'

Righty to pitch deciding ALDS game in Oakland for second straight year

DETROIT -- After dominating the Athletics in Game 2 of the American League Division Series -- seven shutout innings, four hits, 11 strikeouts -- Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander began preparing himself to pitch the decisive Game 5 if this playoff matchup got that far.

Which is kind of interesting since he wasn't supposed to start Game 5. Max Scherzer was.

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Well, things change. Facing a must-win situation in Game 4 on Tuesday night at Comerica Park, manager Jim Leyland used Scherzer, a 21-game winner, to pitch the seventh and eighth out of the bullpen in the Tigers' 8-6 win. Which meant that Verlander gets the assignment in that must-win Game 5 matchup Thursday night at Coliseum (8 p.m. ET on TBS).

"I prepared myself like it was possible," Verlander said after Game 4. "I didn't know what anybody had planned or what the plans were coming in, but I knew there was a chance. So I just threw my [bullpen session] on my normal day and prepared as best I could.

"It's not just another game. The season is on the line. The whole season, the way we battled and played as a team, comes down to one game. May the best team win. You can't treat it like another game, you know. It's a little bit different. There is more to it. It's going to be fun. It's what you play the game for. It's exciting. This is what you dream of as a kid, to be on the mound in a clinching game."

Tale of the Tape: Game 5
Justin Verlander
Sonny Gray
2013 regular season
Overall: 34 GS, 13-12, 3.46 ERA, 75 BB, 217 SO Overall: 12 G, 10 GS, 5-3, 2.67 ERA, 20 BB, 67 SO
Key stat: Verlander extended his postseason scoreless-innings streak against the A's to 22 innings in his Game 2 no-decision -- the longest streak against the A's since 1905. Key stat: Gray became the second pitcher in A's postseason history with at least eight scoreless innings, nine strikeouts and four or fewer hits in Game 2.
At Coliseum (reg. season)
2013: 2 GS, 1-0, 0.69 ERA
Career: 11 GS, 5-4, 2.16 ERA
2013: 7 GS, 3-1, 1.66 ERA
Career: 7 GS, 3-1, 1.66 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 3 GS, 1-1, 2.00 ERA
Career: 16 GS, 8-6, 2.31 ERA
2013: 1 GS, 0-0, 0.00 ERA
Career: 1 GS, 0-0, 0.00 ERA
Loves to face: Eric Sogard, 0-for-9, K
Hates to face:: Coco Crisp, 8-for-28, 2 2B
Loves to face: Austin Jackson, 0-for-4, 4 K
Hates to face:: Don Kelly, 2-for-3, 2 1B
Game Breakdown
Why he'll win: Verlander pitched in this spot last year, tossing a complete-game, 11-strikeout outing that sent Detroit to the ALCS. Why he'll win: Gray has a 1.85 ERA over his last seven outings.
Pitcher beware: Verlander struggled down the stretch with his highest ERA (3.46) and WHIP (1.31) since 2008. Pitcher beware: He's a rookie making his 12th career start in a win-or-go-home deciding game of a playoff series.
Bottom line: Verlander pitched well enough to win in Game 2 with seven shutout innings but was outlasted by Gray. Even one run by the Tigers could be enough to get the win. Bottom line: Gray will need to be as sharp as he was in Game 2 if he wants to outlast Verlander again for the A's, who are 1-11 in possible clinching games since 2000.

When the Tigers decided to start Scherzer in Game 1, it wasn't a surprise. Scherzer is probably the front-runner to win the AL Cy Young Award this season. Verlander, by his own admission, struggled to find himself all year.

It was, however, noteworthy. Because it meant that Verlander, who prior to this season had been the undisputed ace of the staff, wouldn't start the all-important Game 5 if it came to that. And it was Verlander who, almost exactly a year earlier, started in the same situation in the same stadium and fired a four-hit shutout to eliminate the Athletics. The Tigers eventually went all the way to the World Series.

The planets had to align for Verlander to be in this situation, of course. First, the Tigers had to win Game 4 to extend the series. Then the game had to unfold in such a way that Leyland would activate his plan to use Scherzer out of the bullpen. That happened when starter Doug Fister needed 104 pitches to get through six innings. The Tigers' manager had said he wouldn't bring Scherzer in if Detroit was trailing; the score was tied when Scherzer came out for the top of the seventh.

With that, Verlander slipped into the open spot in the rotation. And because there are two travel days built into the schedule, he'll be pitching with full rest.

While Verlander's overall numbers for the season aren't up to his usual level, he pitched extremely well in his last two starts of the regular season, and then underlined the fact that he was back in top form in his first start of the playoffs, albeit in a 1-0 loss to the A's.

"I think it's just some of the adjustments I made, one of the maybe a thousand that I tried to make this year," he said. "It was definitely a grind all year. Then it reached a point where I realized it was going to take awhile, that it wasn't going to be one thing I had to fix.

"I knew it wasn't going to be a quick process, and I set a date for myself that I needed to be ready at all costs for the postseason. The last month of the season, I think I found some things that really benefited me. My location, just my stuff in general."

Now Verlander will have an opportunity to marshal all that in the game that will determine whether Detroit advances to the AL Championship Series or has all winter to think of what might have been. It wasn't supposed to work out this way, but the Tigers feel pretty good about their chances now.

"We used a 21-game winner out of the bullpen and now we can pitch a Cy Young winner in his place," marveled center fielder Austin Jackson. "How many teams could do that?"

Paul Hagen is a reporter for

Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander