(SportsNetwork.com) - Detroit right-hander Justin Verlander endured one of the worst years of his career this past season. But on Thursday, Verlander can put a season's worth of frustration behind him, as he takes the ball for the Tigers in the decisive fifth game of the American League Division Series against the Oakland Athletics.
"It's not just another game," Verlander said. "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."
Of course, Verlander was in this exact same position last year and responded by striking out 11 in a four-hit shutout to propel the Tigers to the ALCS. He was equally as dominant against the A's in Game 2 of this series, but did not get a decision, despite tossing seven scoreless innings in his team's 1-0 loss.
Verlander, though, was 13-12 during the season and finished the year with his highest ERA (3.46), lowest strikeout rate (23.5 percent) and lowest innings total (218 1/3) since 2008 and battled through reduced velocity.
However, the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner started to show signs of the pitcher he has been down the stretch and pitched to a 2.27 ERA in his final six starts of the regular season.
"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."
Oakland, meanwhile, has relied on a lot of young arms this season. If they want to play another game they'll need to lean on another, as for the seventh time in their last 10 postseason games the A's will hand the ball to a rookie hurler.
Sonny Gray takes the ball as he did in Game 2 versus Verlander and the Tigers and will try to duplicate that performance which saw him strike out nine batters over eight scoreless innings.
A 23-year-old righty, Gray has just 11 big league starts under his belt. Yet, Oakland manager Bob Melvin chose him rather than 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, who won 18 games this season and was second in the AL with a 2.65 ERA.
"Obviously, we had two great options there with Bartolo," A's manager Bob Melvin said during a late-afternoon conference call Wednesday. "We looked at it at a bunch of different angles. We have a lot of smart people in our front office and in our baseball operations and the short of it is it came down to Sonny and the last game he pitched in similar conditions in our ballpark. So that's the route we're going to go."
Including the Game 2 assignment, Gray pitched to a 1.66 ERA in seven home starts. He's also struck out 47 batters over 48 2/3 innings of those outings.
"He's got a power arm and lot of talent, but it's hard to know -- like in Game 2 -- how a young guy is going to react," A's shortstop Jed Lowrie said about Gray. "But he went out there with all the confidence in the world and performed pretty well."
Detroit staved off elimination on Tuesday, as it rallied twice and held on to beat the Athletics, 8-6. Victor Martinez homered in the win, while Game 1 winner Max Scherzer, who relieved starter Doug Fister in the seventh, escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the eighth with two strikeouts and a line drive for the Tigers, who are trying to get back to the ALCS for the second straight year.
"To be able to get out of that jam, I mean, that's something I'll never forget," said Scherzer. "That's something I'm not really asked to do, and tonight I was."
Lowrie hit a two-run homer and knocked in Oakland's first three runs as the A's built a 3-0 lead through the first 4 1/2 innings.
Oakland will be trying to buck a trend of Game 5 failures on Thursday. The A's have lost all five Game 5s they have played in the ALDS and are a miserable 1-11 in potential clinching games since losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds back in 1990.
Detroit, which lost four of seven games against the A's during the season, has beaten Oakland the last two times these teams have met in the postseason. The A's only win against the Tigers in the playoffs came in the 1972 ALCS, which started a run of three consecutive world titles for Oakland.
The winner of tonight's contest will play Game 1 of the ALCS in Boston on Saturd