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Call to arms: Tigers know winning formula in Game 5s

In each of last two years, Detroit's pitching key to victory in decisive ALDS contests

OAKLAND -- Maybe we should have expected the Tigers to be back here all along. After all, this is where the last two Detroit trips to the American League Division Series have ended up, the Tigers needing to win a Game 5 on the road to advance or go home.

Both of the previous Game 5 matchups -- two years ago at Yankee Stadium and last October in Oakland -- the Tigers went back to their strengths. Both times, pitching carried them through, taking offense from different sources and rolling.

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Two years ago, Detroit took advantage of home runs from Don Kelly and Delmon Young. Last year, leadoff man Austin Jackson drove in two runs and scored another. Both times, Tigers pitching ensured they never trailed.

Even after the long-awaited outburst from the Tigers' offense on Tuesday in Game 4 that sent this year's ALDS back to the Bay Area for a deciding game, the Tigers will most likely have to pitch their way out of here. Fortunately for them, they have some experience with this.

"It's not just another game. The season is on the line," said scheduled starter Justin Verlander. "You can't treat it just like another game, you know. It's a little bit different. There is more to it."

There's a lot more to the pitcher who starts it.

It was Verlander who set the tone for the Tigers in Game 5 at the Coliseum last year, taking a team that had just suffered a walk-off loss the previous night to force a deciding game and carrying the squad on the strength of his gifted right arm. Verlander stranded a runner in scoring position in the opening inning and overcame a two-out walk in second before retiring 15 of 16 after Jackson doubled in a run and scored another in the third inning.

Verlander's complete-game four-hitter lasted 122 pitches. He struck out 11 batters, yet reached just four three-ball counts, none of them after the sixth inning. Going by the metric of Game Score -- adding and subtracting points for innings, strikeouts, hits, walks and runs -- it was the highest-rated performance by a pitcher in a win-or-go-home game in postseason history, barely topping Sandy Koufax's complete-game three-hitter against Minnesota in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series.

There was no all-hands-on-deck atmosphere like so many teams take in elimination games. There was just Verlander.

"He was determined," manager Jim Leyland said that night. "He had a complete-game look in his eye."

A year earlier, by contrast, Game 5 in the Bronx was a community effort. Because Verlander's Game 1 outing in that series was pushed back by rain, he returned in Game 3 and couldn't pitch at all. Doug Fister, who took over Game 1 when the game resumed, fell in line for Game 5 and delivered five innings of one-run ball.

It wasn't necessarily dominant -- Fister stranded six Yankees on base along those five innings -- but it established the tone for the rest of the night. Max Scherzer, making his most recent relief appearance before Tuesday night, rebounded from a bases-loaded walk to strand the tying run at third by striking out Nick Swisher. Jose Valverde retired the middle of the Yankees' lineup in order in the ninth, capped by an Alex Rodriguez strikeout, to finish it off. And the Yankees, who scored 10 runs in Game 4 to force the deciding game, produced just two runs off 10 hits in the finale.

"This will be a game I'll remember for the rest of my life," Leyland said.

Add together the performances, and Tigers pitchers have produced 18 innings of two-run ball in Game 5s over the last two years, allowing 14 hits, one home run and four walks while striking out 21. They've stranded 15 runners on base and held opponents to 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

The pattern across all teams in 13 winner-take-all contests since 2011 -- including Wild Card games -- isn't quite so strong, but it follows. Ten games have been decided with the losing team scoring two runs or fewer. In five games, the winning team has been held to four runs or fewer.

The only two games in which both teams topped four runs both happened in Game 5 of the National League Division Series last year. One was the Cardinals' wild comeback in Washington for a 9-7 win, the other was the Giants' 6-4 victory over the Reds.

Three games ended in shutouts, including Chris Carpenter's duel over Roy Halladay for a 1-0 Cardinals' win over the Phillies in Game 5 of their 2011 NLDS.

Teams obviously try to throw their best possible pitching on the mound when everything is on the line, some fully rested, some not. But teams also put trust in their pitching to hold a lead if they can produce a few runs.

The Tigers had pitching at the forefront of their game plan all along, this year more than ever. Now Verlander, the only pitcher in postseason history not to get a win out of seven shutout innings and 11 strikeouts, is right where he was last year.

"It's what you play the game for," he said. "It's exciting. This is what you dream of as a kid, to be on the mound in a clinching game."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

Detroit Tigers, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander