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 leadoff homer that quieted the Comerica Park crowd just one batter into the game.
“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.
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 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 Josh 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.
“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 with his glove hand for an error that allowed Omar Infante to score.
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 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 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.
Verlander walked four.
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 with no further 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.”