By Larry Lage/The Associated Press
DETROIT — Justin Verlander allowed a home run to the first batter of the game — and quickly shrugged it off.
This hard-throwing ace doesn’t usually hit his stride until a bit later.
Verlander shut down Oakland after that early slip, and Alex Avila homered in the fifth inning to lift the Detroit 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 career postseason high with 11 strikeouts. As usual, he seemed stronger in the later innings, striking out the side in the sixth and the first two hitters of the seventh. That made up for Coco Crisp’s home run that quieted the Comerica Park crowd just one batter into the game.
“I was a little out of synch but was able to get some outs with guys on base and keep the score at one run,” Verlander said. “The adrenaline got me a little bit early.”
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 in Sunday, with Doug Fister taking the mound for Detroit and left-hander Tommy Milone for Oakland.
It was only the second victory for Detroit in its last seven 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 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 fastball just inside the pole in right field to put Oakland on top.
The AL Central-champion Tigers tied it immediately. 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 Donaldson, who also could only get a piece of the ball while diving for it.
Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, who went hitless, grounded into a double play, but Jackson came home to make it 1-all.
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. The Detroit ace struck out Brandon Moss to end the Oakland third with a 99 mph fastball — but Verlander was having to reach back for extra speed early.
The Athletics tied a postseason record by starting four rookies — Parker, Josh 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 with his glove hand for an error that allowed Omar Infante to score.
It looked like Parker may have been trying to flip the ball with his glove to his first baseman, who wasn’t on the bag.
Avila’s solo shot made it 3-1, and the A’s couldn’t break through against Verlander, even with the reigning MVP’s pitch count rising.
Verlander led the majors in strikeouts this year, and Oakland was baseball’s most strikeout-prone team. It showed toward the end of Verlander’s outing.
After taking a called third strike for the third out of the sixth — Verlander’s fourth strikeout in five hitters — Donaldson chirped a bit at plate umpire Jim Reynolds. Verlander was done after one more inning, finishing with 121 pitches and his fourth career postseason win.
Benoit allowed a single in the eighth, followed by a flyout by Moss that Andy Dirks caught at the wall in right field.
Oakland right-hander Pat Neshek, whose newborn son died 23 hours after his birth, came on to relieve Parker in the seventh. He entered with two on and one out but got out of the inning with no further scoring.
NOTES: Crisp was 8 for 22 off Verlander entering but with no homers. … Cabrera received chants of “MVP” from the fans when he was announced before the game. Oakland 3B Brandon Inge — a former Tiger — was also cheered. … The temperature was 49 degrees at game time. … Moss struck out three times. … Arizona started four rookies three times in the 2007 postseason, according to STATS, LLC. … Verlander also struck out 11 against the Yankees in last year’s division series.