He began the game with a 92 m.p.h. fastball for a strike. And it just got better from there. Justin Verlander had the night of his professional life Thursday night at Oakland Coliseum.

Less than 24 hours earlier, his team had coughed up a two-run lead in the ninth inning and let Oakland even the American League Division Series at two games apiece. It was the kind of loss that can end a season.

Except Verlander wouldn't let it.

Since the ALDS began almost a week ago, the Tigers knew they had a trump card in Verlander. Or at least they hoped. As dominant as last year's Cy Young winner has been the past two seasons, that regular-season success hasn't consistently translated to the playoffs.

Last year his offense picked him up as he gutted out a win over the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series. Still, he gave up four runs in seven innings that day.

Verlander pitched well last Saturday to open the series and help give Detroit a 1-0 lead. But he lasted only seven innings because of early command troubles. Even so, he held Oakland to one run and three hits.

He knew he needed a better effort Thursday in Game 5. Partly because his team had managed just 11 runs in its first four games against the A's, and partly because of the blown save in Game 4, when Jose Valverde gave up three runs in the ninth to lose the game.