OAKLAND – For three innings Thursday, Game 5 of this American League Division Series felt like a continuation of Game 2, with two hard-throwing right-handers trading zeroes and a tense crowd hanging on every pitch.
Then Sonny Gray, the A's precocious rookie, blinked first, allowing a two-run homer to Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera with one out in the fourth. And after that, it began to resemble more distant, less pleasant memories for the A's.
The Tigers' Justin Verlander, who nearly a year ago to the day in the same park threw a four-hit shutout in Game 5 of the 2012 A.L. Division Series, dropped the curtain on the A's season again. This time, Verlander allowed two hits over eight scoreless innings to pitch the Tigers into the A.L. Championship Series for the third consecutive year, while the A's saw their season end with a 3-0 loss at O.co Coliseum.
"We're disappointed," first baseman Brandon Moss said as the A's exchanged hugs and handshakes and packed boxes in the clubhouse. "Last year, we were disappointed we didn't move on, but at the same time, we were thankful for the season we'd had and realized how good we were.
"This year, it's disappointing. We believed and we still believe we were just as good if not a better team. We just got shut down by an unbelievable pitcher."
It was a quiet finish to a series the A's were within nine outs of winning in Game 4, when they held a one-run lead going into the seventh inning only to see the Tigers pull out an 8-6 win. It ended a season in which the A's won 96 regular-season games, second-most in the American League, following their surprise run to the 2012 postseason with a year that seemed to indicate that was no fluke.
Still, they could not reverse their recent fortunes in the postseason. The A's have lost nine of their last 10 playoff series dating to the 1990 World Series, and 12 of their last 13 potential clinchers. They have also lost six consecutive winner-take-all games in the playoffs, all in the ALDS in the last 14 seasons.
Two have come at the hand of Verlander, who has not allowed a run to Oakland in 30 consecutive postseason innings dating to Game 1 of last year's ALDS – a record against the A's. In four starts over the past two division series, Verlander's line reads: 31 innings, 13 hits, one run, seven walks and 43 strikeouts.
"Tonight was the best that I've seen him," A's third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "He was just throwing everything for strikes. The only time you're going to get to him is if he's getting himself in trouble, and he didn't do that."
For the first six innings, Verlander did not allow a hit. The A's got their first baserunner on a one-out walk to Josh Reddick in the sixth, and Yoenis Cespedes broke up Verlander's no-hit bid in the seventh with a two-out single. Reddick had the only other hit against Verlander, a two-out single in the eighth.
"He was being him," catcher Stephen Vogt said. "Mixing his pitches, locating his fastball up, down, never really coming over the middle of the plate. He stepped up and threw a great game."
The Tigers turned to closer Joaquin Benoit in the ninth, with Verlander at 111 pitches and – he later said – "running on fumes." After allowing a two-out double to Jed Lowrie and hitting Cespedes to bring the tying run to the plate, Benoit retired Seth Smith on a fly ball to shallow right that Torii Hunter secured, bringing the Tigers out of their dugout to a mob on the infield.
It was Hunter who recorded the Tigers' first hit off Gray in the fourth, a single up the middle with one out. Gray then left a 1-0 fastball up and over the plate to Cabrera, who hit it over the left-field wall in a turn that, even early on, seemed momentous. Gray said he was trying to come inside with the fastball and left it up.
After blanking the Tigers for eight innings in Game 2, Gray on Thursday departed two batters into the sixth, having thrown 98 pitches and issuing four walks. Gray said he battled control issues with the fastball, though manager Bob Melvin said Gray was a victim of circumstance.
"He pitched fine," Melvin said. "When you don't score a run and only get a couple of hits or whatever it was, you know, you have to be perfect."
At the time Gray exited, Verlander still was. He finished with 10 strikeouts, one fewer than in his shutout last year. His last came on his final hitter – Vogt, the A's walk-off hero in Game 2, who went down swinging at a curveball in the dirt.
The A's struck out 57 times in the series, eclipsing the 50 from last year's ALDS that, at the time, established an Oakland-era record.
Ultimately, it was Benoit whom the Tigers rushed to meet in the infield. But there was no mistaking who was responsible for sending the A's into the offseason. For the second year in a row, it was Verlander.
Video highlights from ALDS Game 5 between the A's and Tigers: