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 labored, 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 postseason 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 Sunday, 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 postseason 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 postseason. 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-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. 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 postseason 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.
"He wasn't trying to flip it, because he was closer to the bag than I was," first baseman Brandon Moss said. "He was just trying to grab it and it came out of his glove."
Avila's solo shot made it 3-1, and the A's couldn't take advantage of Verlander's rising pitch count.
"In the postseason you don't go out there and think about pitch count and keeping it low," Verlander said. "I'm just going to be aggressive, try to find the strike zone and throw quality strikes, and the pitch count will take care of itself."
Verlander led the majors in strikeouts for the second straight 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 a five-hitter span – 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.
Verlander walked four.
"We battled him hard, but it doesn't even seem to matter how many pitches that guy throws," Oakland outfielder Josh Reddick said. "He just keeps coming after you with all of those pitches."
Benoit allowed a single in the eighth, followed by a flyout by Moss that Andy Dirks caught at the wall in right field.
"I didn't think it was gone," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I thought he just missed it. And he did just miss it."
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 without any scoring.
Oakland wore patches with the initials GJN. Neshek's son's name was Gehrig John Neshek.
"It was really tough warming up, and I thought about him the entire time. I said yesterday that baseball would be a way to clear my mind, but that didn't happen. He was always there," Neshek said. "I know it is a cliche, but I really felt like I had someone watching me and helping with that last pitch. That was my best slider of the year."
NOTES: Parker allowed seven hits. He struck out five and walked one. ... 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. ... 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.
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Who's Your Tiger?
They win ballgames (sometimes), they hit homers, they steal bases and they hug a lot. Say hello to your Detroit Tigers. We've collected some of our favorite photos from this season of the boys in blue and orange. Click through to pick your favorite player. Caption: Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, center, and Delmon Young, right, celebrate the Tigers' 5-1 win over the Minnesota Twins in a baseball game Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012 in Minneapolis. Both Young and Cabrera homered in the game. At left is Prince Fielder.
Miguel Cabrera #24 of the Detroit Tigers talks to members of the Boston Red Sox during the game on July 31, 2012 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.
Easy Does It
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander tosses the ball to get Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz out at first after a grounder back to the mound during the third inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston on Tuesday, May 29, 2012.
Brennan Boesch #26 of the Detroit Tigers runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the 7th inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on June 13, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.
Detroit Tigers' Ryan Raburn walks off the field after striking out in the second inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore, Saturday, July 14, 2012.
Detroit Tigers' Austin Jackson, right, high-fives manager Jim Leyland after hitting a solo home run in the first inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore, Sunday, July 15, 2012.
Men Of Fashion
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, left, first baseman Prince Fielder, center, and third baseman Miguel Cabrera, right, react after being presented with their All-Star jerseys before a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals in Detroit, Friday, July 6, 2012.
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Doug Fister warms up against the Washington Nationals before the first inning of a spring training baseball game in Viera, Fla., Sunday, March 18, 2012.
Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland blows a bubble before the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Detroit, Tuesday, June 19, 2012.
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander acknowledges the crowd after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-0 in an interleague baseball game, Friday, May 18, 2012, in Detroit. Verlander threw a one-hitter.
Detroit Tigers starter Max Scherzer delivers a pitch in the first inning during a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Chicago, Tuesday, May, 15, 2012.
Anibal Sanchez #19 of the Detroit Tigers delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning on August 13, 2012 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Toronto Blue Jays' Colby Rasmus is forced out on second by Detroit Tigers' Omar Infante, who misses the double play during the fifth inning of a baseball game, Saturday, July 28, 2012, in Toronto.
Caught In The Moment
Detroit Tigers' Quintin Berry celebrates hitting an RBI single against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 10th inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Thursday, June 21, 2012. Detroit won 2-1.
Detroit Tigers' Jhonny Peralta celebrates a three run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays during second inning of a baseball game in Toronto Sunday, July 29, 2012.
Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit leaves the dugout en route to the bullpen after finishing his pitching duties in the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Monday, March 5, 2012, in Lakeland, Fla.
Detroit Tigers right fielder Quintin Berry (52) celebrates a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates with second baseman Ryan Raburn (25) after an interleague baseball game in Pittsburgh Sunday, June 24, 2012.
Detroit Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello throws against the Seattle Mariners in the first inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Thursday, April 26, 2012.
Delmon Young #21 of the Detroit Tigers races around third base to score against the Kansas City Royals during a MLB game at Comerica Park on September 26, 2012 in Detroit.
Prince Fielder #28 of the Detroit Tigers waits to bat against the Baltimore Orioles during the sixth inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 14, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Detroit Tigers second baseman Ramon Santiago, top, and Colorado Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez watch after Santiago completed the double play on a Michael Cuddyer ground ball in the sixth inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Saturday, June 16, 2012.
Detroit Tigers catcher Gerald Laird, right, is examined by trainer Kevin Rand after getting hit in the face mask with a ball in the second inning of an interleague baseball game against the Colorado Rockies, Sunday, June 17, 2012, in Detroit.
Let The Right One In
Infielder Miguel Cabrera #24 of the Detroit Tigers takes a strike against the Tampa Bay Rays July 1, 2012 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Tigers won 5 - 3.
Jose Valverde #46 of the Detroit Tigers reacts after beating the Tampa Bay Rays 5-2 at Comerica Park on April 10, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.
Don Kelly #32 of the Detroit Tigers scores the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning during an MLB game against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park on September 27, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers won 5-4.
Quintin Berry #52 of the Detroit Tigers doubles to deep left center field in the third inning during the game against the New York Yakees at Comerica Park on June 1, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.
Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila (13) tags Los Angeles Angels' Erick Aybar out at home plate in the third inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Monday, July 16, 2012.
Detroit Tigers second baseman Danny Worth (29) nearly collides with right fielder Matt Young (38) as Worth catches a fly ball hit by Cincinnati Reds' Todd Frazier in the eighth inning of a baseball game, Friday, June 8, 2012, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 6-5 in 10 innings.
Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Al Alburquerque reacts after a balk call which allowed New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez to score from third during the eighth inning of Game 4 of baseball's American League division series on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011, in Detroit. The Yankees won 10-1.
Detroit Tigers' Andy Dirks dives into third base with a triple against the Minnesota Twins in the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in Detroit.