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Verlander puts the 'k' in strike

Detroit ace fans 11 in 7 innings after giving up leadoff HR

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DETROIT -- Justin Verlander threw a fastball that caught a bit too much of the plate, allowing Oakland's Coco Crisp to lead off the game with a stunning home run.

For the first few innings, Verlander laboured, his pitch count rising while his control deserted him. But the Athletics could manage only that one run, missing their best chance of the night to break through against Detroit's hard-throwing ace.

Verlander held Oakland scoreless after his early slip, and Alex Avila homered in the fifth inning to lift the Tigers over the Athletics 3-1 Saturday night in the opener of their best-of-five AL playoff. Verlander allowed three hits in seven innings and matched his post-season high with 11 strikeouts.

"Early on was kind of a bit of a battle for me," Verlander said. "Just kind of found my rhythm a little bit and was able to hit my spots better, and I started throwing my breaking ball for strikes a little bit better too."

As usual, he seemed stronger in the later innings, striking out the side in the sixth and the first two hitters of the seventh.

"Early on, didn't have great control of any of my pitches," Verlander said. "But I was able to get myself out of jams that I created."

Joaquin Benoit pitched the eighth and Jose Valverde struck out two in a perfect ninth for the save. Oakland's Jarrod Parker allowed two earned runs in 6 1/3 innings and took the loss.

Game 2 is today, with Doug Fister taking the mound for Detroit and left-hander Tommy Milone for Oakland. Then the series shifts to the West Coast.

"It's always important to get Game 1. The way it is now, obviously, it's nice starting here but to play the last three games in Oakland is definitely tough," Avila said. "Every game's important, but it felt real good to get one out of the way."

It was only the second victory for Detroit in its last seven post-season series openers. The Tigers lost Game 1 to the Yankees in the division series last year before winning in five. Detroit then lost the opener of the AL championship series to Texas.

After winning their final six games to take the AL West in shocking fashion, the A's made their presence felt right away in Detroit. The home crowd at Comerica Park greeted Verlander with a roar and a sea of twirling white towels when he popped out of the dugout and headed to the mound to start the game, but Crisp was unfazed. He pulled Verlander's two-strike pitch just inside the pole in right field to put Oakland on top.

"He made a mistake to the first batter of the game, and then he didn't make another one all night," A's first baseman Brandon Moss said, exaggerating only slightly.

Verlander had two starts cut short early by bad weather in last year's post-season. It was 49 degrees -- but dry -- at game time Saturday.

The AL Central-champion Tigers, in consecutive postseasons for the first time since 1934-35, tied it in their half of the first. Austin Jackson's hard-hit ball deflected off diving shortstop Stephen Drew and into short left field. The Detroit leadoff man ended up with a double and went to third when Quintin Berry slapped a single to third off Josh Donaldson, who also could only get a piece of the ball while diving for it.

Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, who went 0-for-3 with a walk, grounded into a double play, but Jackson came home to make it 1-1.

Drew finally made a diving play in the second, sprawling to his right on Delmon Young's grounder and then throwing to first for the out. At the plate, the A's made Verlander work, forcing him to throw 61 pitches in the first three innings. Verlander struck out Moss to end the Oakland third with a 99 mph fastball -- but Verlander was having to reach back for extra velocity early.

"Most good starters, you try to get to them before they get into their rhythm," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "He got better as the game went along. A lot of times your best opportunity is early in the game."

The Athletics tied a post-season record by starting four rookies -- Parker, Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes and Derek Norris.

Parker looked sharp early but allowed another run in the third because of a fielding mishap. With two out and a man on second, Berry chopped a soft grounder to the right side. Parker came off the mound to field it, but with the speedy Berry hustling to first, Parker lost control of the ball while scooping at it with his glove for an error that allowed Omar Infante to score.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 7, 2012 B3

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