OAKLAND, Calif. -- For three innings Thursday night, Game 5 of this AL 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 Athletics' precocious rookie, blinked first, allowing a two-run home run 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 Thursday. This time, Verlander allowed two hits for eight scoreless innings to pitch the Tigers into the AL Championship Series for the third consecutive year, while the A's saw their season end with a 3-0 loss at the Coliseum.
"We're disappointed," said first baseman Brandon Moss, as the A's exchanged hugs and handshakes and packed boxes in the clubhouse Thursday night. "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 quieting finish to a series the A's had been 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 back to the 1990 World Series, as well as 12 of their last 13 potential postseason clinchers. They have also lost six consecutive winner-take-all games in the playoffs, all in the ALDS and 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 back 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 tonight."
For the first six innings Thursday, Verlander did not allow a hit. The A's got their first baserunner on a one-out walk to Josh Reddick in the sixth inning 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 for 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 inning, singling up the middle with one out. Gray then left a 1-0 fastball up and over the plate to Cabrera, the reigning Triple Crown winner, which Cabrera hit 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 inning, having thrown 98 pitches and issuing four walks. He later said he battled control issues with the fastball all game, though manager Bob Melvin said Gray was a victim of circumstance.
"He pitched fine tonight," 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 the game, Verlander still was. The Tigers' right-hander finished with 10 strikeouts, one fewer than in his complete-game shutout last year. His last came on his final hitter of the night -- 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 middle of the infield on Thursday night. 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.
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