OAKLAND -- Justin Verlander met his deadline of being back in form for the playoffs. In A's rookie Sonny Gray, however, he met his match.
"He pitched like Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling," reigning American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera said after the 1-0 Tigers loss sent them back home with their American League Division Series even at a game apiece.
The look in Cabrera's eyes after that pitching duel was amazement. He was shaking his head.
"Wow, that fastball, that breaking ball," Cabrera continued. "Man, he was good. He was great today."
He could've easily been talking about Verlander, who re-established his October dominance with seven shutout innings and 11 strikeouts. He was actually talking about Gray, whose postseason debut saw him shut down Detroit's offense for eight innings with nine strikeouts.
"Verlander, too," Cabrera added, quickly correcting himself. "Both."
In the end, that's probably how Verlander's return to form will be remembered. Six days after Verlander's final regular-season tuneup ended up overshadowed by Henderson Alvarez's no-hitter in Miami, his return to the postseason will probably be a footnote in the amazing story of Gray and his October indoctrination.
Much like the Alvarez no-hitter, it took a ninth-inning rally -- capped by Stephen Vogt's bases-loaded RBI single off Rick Porcello -- to finally have a scoreless duel finally meet its end.
"It was a heckuva baseball game," catcher Alex Avila said. "Those guys pitched their [fannies] off. They just got the one hit with guys on base that we didn't get."
The Tigers headed back to Detroit in the wee hours of Sunday morning with a split, earning them a chance to finish out the best-of-five matchup at Comerica Park if they can win the next two games (Game 3, Monday, 1 p.m. ET on MLB Network) . But with an offense that hasn't plated a run in 17 innings following the first inning of the series, they missed a golden opportunity to head home with a chance for a sweep.
Unless Max Scherzer couldn't pitch a deciding Game 5, meanwhile, the series is over for Verlander. But while America outside of the Bay Area discovered Gray, it also rediscovered Verlander.
For nearly two months, as Verlander worked through mechanical tweaks, strategic quirks and doomsday prognostications, he kept pointing to the playoffs as his deadline. If he could get back to his dominant form in time for October baseball, all the work he put in to get there will have been worth it.
"Pretty good stuff," Verlander said. "I feel like that's been a theme for me my last few starts, and it's a good theme for me to have, because I've been working really hard to find my stuff and my location and everything."
Verlander took the same mound in Oakland where he shut out the A's in Game 5 of last year's ALDS and picked up where he left off. His fastball hit as high as 98 mph, and more importantly, he hit his spots with it.
Then came his curveball. What had been an off-again, on-again breaking pitch was buckling, taking A's hitters down with it. Vogt was caught looking at one. Eric Sogard and Josh Donaldson went down swinging at two others up in the zone to end the fifth and sixth inning, respectively.
The nastiest, however, dropped on the inside corner to cleanup hitter Brandon Moss, freezing him at the plate to end a fourth inning in which Verlander retired the side on called third strikes.
Verlander fanned 11 Athletics over his seven innings, five of them looking. He ended each of his final four innings with strikeouts, showing increasing emotion with each zero completed. His reaction upon striking out Vogt for a third time on his 117th and final pitch, a 98-mph fastball, was perhaps the most he has shown on the mound since his first no-hitter.
"Obviously that was a huge spot in the game -- base hit, anything, I knew this game would be over," Verlander said. "Especially the at-bat he put together, that's one of the best at-bats anybody's had against me in a long time. So to come out on the winning hand, it just flows, the emotion."
Add in nine strikeouts for Gray, and plate umpire CB Bucknor had enough punchout motions to look like a prize fighter. Considering the matchup, it might have been fitting.
The Tigers had never seen Gray, and they relied on a combination of video and advance scouting to form a game plan against him. Nothing they saw prepared them for the actual product, a mid-90s-throwing rookie whose composure matched his stuff.
"You go over film as much as you can. Once you get out there, you're pretty much just trying to see it and hit it," said Austin Jackson, who struck out four times against Gray. "And he had good stuff."
Gray escaped a second-inning jam with a Jose Iglesias ground ball to strand runners at first and second, starting him on a roll. An ill-advised bit of Tigers aggressiveness left Omar Infante standing helplessly on third base to watch Jackson strike out and Iglesias thrown out trying to steal second.
The Tigers managed just four singles over Gray's eight innings, the final three of them infield grounders after Cabrera's first-inning liner up the middle.
"I think we looked a little bit like we were guessing, because it was the first time we faced him," Cabrera said. "The way he threw the ball, he wasn't giving us a break to try to figure him out. But we worked counts, we had a lot of 2-2, 3-2, and he made some pitches. He was great."
According to research on baseball-reference.com, Verlander became the first pitcher in postseason history to earn a no-decision after seven or more shutout innings and 11 or more strikeouts. Gray, meanwhile, became the second pitcher to get a no-decision from eight shutout innings with nine or more strikeouts, joining Oriole Mike Mussina in Game 5 of the 1997 AL Championship Series.
That's how good this matchup was.
"You expect more high-scoring games based on both offenses," A's manager Bob Melvin said, "but pitching can rule the day."
In essence, though, Gray's no-decision was a win for the A's, who were able to outlast Verlander's outing and take a tie game into Detroit's bullpen. Al Alburquerque (0-1) stranded two runners in the eighth with back-to-back strikeouts of Donaldson and Moss, pumping sliders to both of them. Back-to-back singles, both off sliders, leading off the ninth left Alburquerque (0-1) and the Tigers needing an escape.
Unlike the first seven innings, there was no Verlander to pull out a strikeout. Instead, an intentional walk to Josh Reddick loaded the bases and brought in regular-season starter Porcello for Vogt, who lined a single into left-center field for the game-winner.