Sunday | February 19, 2017
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Game 5 could come down to Tigers’ Justin Verlander vs. Athletics’ Coco Crisp

DETROIT — He’s a dynamic performer, and as the regular season concluded, he soared to a peak. It was almost as if he were willing his team into the playoffs. He looked unstoppable and unbeatable.

Then the playoff series between the Tigers and Athletics began, and he only got better. He suffused the entire game. The electricity of decisiveness crackled out of him, as if he had more voltage than anyone else on the field. Even someone who had never seen him in action could tell how vital he was. The other team had faced him often, but it didn’t seem to have an answer for him.

And when the decisive Game 5 begins Thursday night in Oakland, he will be centrally involved as soon as the Athletics bat in the first inning. Yes, that Coco Crisp is something.

The fact that all of the above descriptions also apply to Justin Verlander is why Thursday night’s game might come down to Verlander, the Tigers’ starter, against Crisp, the Oakland leadoff hitter. Whoever wins the duel has a good chance of leading his team to victory. A review of the recent, urgent weeks of the season shows why.

Verlander finally found his consistency in September. He posted a 2.27 ERA and averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He would have won several games that month if he had even marginally decent run support. But three times in September, the Tigers lost a game in which Verlander didn’t allow a run.

That also happened in Game 2 of the American League Division Series in Oakland. Verlander was back to his vintage form that night, his curveball sharply augmenting his fastball. He looked ready to challenge Max Scherzer, the pending incumbent, for next year’s Cy Young Award.

Verlander retired Crisp all three times he faced him in Game 2. Against each of the other three starters in this series, Crisp has reached base at least twice.

It’s not that Verlander did anything special to Crisp. When Verlander is pitching well, he evokes the memory of Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers ace left-hander of the 1960s: best fastball in the league, best curve in the league. A lot of hitters who face Verlander might feel like Hall of Famer Frank Robinson did when he faced Koufax: “I looked for the fastball. I couldn’t hit the curve.”

Game 5 in Oakland last year was the first time Verlander pitched a winner-take-all game. He didn’t just shut out the A’s — he overwhelmed them. He went the distance on a 6-0 win, and there was never a sense in the game that the A’s were close to scoring.

As Verlander said Tuesday night about this winner-take-all start Thursday night: “You can’t treat it just like another game, you know. It’s a little bit different. There is more to it. This is what you dream of as a kid, be on the mound in a clinching game.”

How could the A’s rock Verlander right away? Well, he has given up some homers to the first batter in the first inning — including Crisp in the first game of last year’s playoffs. What if he goes deep to open the first Thursday night?

In the final six weeks of the season, Crisp hit 12 homers. This would be impressive for Miguel Cabrera. But Crisp is a leadoff hitter with tremendous speed.

Once Crisp heated up in mid-August — a cortisone shot in an ailing left wrist seemed to help — he led the A’s from a lagging second-place team to a supercharged offensive machine that not only overtook first-place Texas but clinched the AL West with a week to go.

Crisp finished as a 20-20 player — a career-high 22 homers, 21 steals. His base-stealing ability is all the more reason for Verlander to keep him off base Thursday night. Verlander has trouble containing the running game. Opposing runners are 21-for-25 in stolen-base attempts against him this season, but no one on Oakland tried to run on him in Game 2, in large part because Crisp never got on base and not many of his colleagues did.

Crisp put on a show in Games 3 and 4 at Comerica Park. He began Game 3 with a double and Game 4 with a triple.

“Coco Crisp, always the party’s first guest, quickly helping himself to the spread,” in the words of Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Crisp kept feasting. In his subsequent at-bats in Game 3, he singled, hit a sacrifice fly, made his only out of the game and doubled.

And in Game 4, he followed that leadoff triple with a long fly-ball out for his only out of the game, and then singles on his remaining three at-bats, each against a different pitcher. His final single, to begin the ninth with the A’s four runs down against Joaquin Benoit, triggered a rally that allowed the A’s to bring power hitter Seth Smith to the plate as the potential tying run. That is the havoc Crisp initiates.

Moments later, in the postgame interview room, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Crisp, “He’s in a good groove. He’s a terrific player, and he’s a catalyst.”

Crisp’s batting average in the series is .500, which among players still in the playoffs ties him for the lead in hitting with Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox. Crisp’s on-base percentage in this series is .556, which ties him for the playoff lead with Ellsbury’s teammates David Ortiz and Shane Victorino. Whoever wins Thursday night will have a cross-country trip to Boston and a formidable foe awaiting in the championship series.

Leyland acknowledged that the Tigers are grateful they haven’t already lost the series, considering how Crisp has played. “We’re fortunate we’re 2-2 because we haven’t shut him down,” he said.

“Shut” will be a key word for Verlander and Crisp and their colleagues in Thursday night’s drama.

Verlander will try for that most awesome postseason feat, just like last year in Game 5 — shutting up a lineup and a crowd.

Someone is going to lose and be shut in for the winter. Maybe there will be a shutout. The most important thing Verlander has to do is shut down Crisp.

Shut be fun.


©2013 Detroit Free Press

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