OAKLAND The A's walked off the field for a final time Thursday night to the chants and cheers of another sellout crowd, to a curtain call from their fans and even a tip of the cap from the Detroit Tigers.
But, geez, reality can be rude. Justin Verlander can be a real party killer, and in the clinching game of a tremendous best-of-five division series, he ruined all the fun. He was impossible and unhittable and ultimately unbeatable.
He threw a complete game, allowed four hits and no runs, and struck out 11 A's, mixing offspeed pitches with devastating fastballs that reached into the high 90s. He was supported by six runs, including a four-run seventh inning, but Austin Jackson's RBI double in the third was all he needed. Verlander was simply better than rookie Jarrod Parker and everything the improbable, unconventional and wildly successful A's were not: a dominating, overpowering, one-man wrecking crew.
Did the A's finally figure it out then? Understand they weren't even supposed to be here? One victory from playing for the American League pennant and prolonging the tantalizing visions of a Bay Area World Series?
This team that set an American League record for strikeouts and hit a feeble .238 during the season?
Probably not. Hopefully not. Hopefully the tarp comes off a little earlier next year and the A's can somehow produce a few more hits to complement their impressive sense of timing (15 walk-off wins) and ability to hit home runs.
"It's a bit of a shock when it finally does end," a flushed Bob Melvin said. "It was a heck of a story, a heck of a run for us. But it doesn't feel any better when you end up going home. It's a pretty empty feeling."
If the ending was a crusher, you wouldn't have known it from the crowd's reaction. Fans were on their feet throughout the game and during the entire ninth inning, sensing the inevitable, pleading for more, not wanting the adventure to end.
While the Tigers mobbed the masterful Verlander after he induced Seth Smith into a harmless grounder to end the game, the cheering and chanting continued, the commotion summoning the A's from the dugout. Detroit's manager, Jim Leyland, ran over and embraced Melvin, a longtime friend. And in a sight seldom seen in sports, the Tigers interrupted their celebration long enough to turn and tip their caps to the A's and their crowd.
"I don't know if you believe this," said Leyland, "but I told one of my coaches on the bench, 'We need a four spot (runs) to take this crowd out of it.' And we never did."
Considering everything that transpired here these last several weeks, once the loss wears off, the A's should feel pretty good about themselves and their immediate future. No one said this postseason rush was supposed to be easy. Heck, no one outside the clubhouse thought this was even going to happen.
Of the players in Thursday's starting lineup, only Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Cliff Pennington and Smith were on the field for the March 28 season opener. Until those remarkable final weeks, the A's were in flux.
Cespedes and Crisp switched positions. Brandon Moss and Chris Carter shared time at first base. Jemile Weeks, a .303 hitter last year and the leadoff batter in the opener, was demoted to the River Cats. Pennington moved to second base when Stephen Drew was acquired in August.
On and on it went, players arriving and others getting sent down, yet the A's endured and surprised. They overcame Bartolo Colon's early exit for violating baseball's steroids policy, the hype and hope of the flirtation with Manny Ramirez and the horrific line drive that ripped into Brandon McCarthy's head, forcing him to undergo emergency brain surgery.
The repeated disruptions might have led to chaos, not just change. But Melvin is that rare A's skipper whose relationship with general manager Billy Beane is rooted in compatibility and respect rather than being the source of ongoing drama.
"A great team, a great manager," Leyland added. "I tip my hat to them."