OAKLAND — Almost as soon as Omar Infante threw out Seth Smith to end the Oakland Athletics surprising season, despair turned to appreciation.
The defeated A's came out of their dugout to a standing ovation from a towel-waving crowd, soaking in the energy that fueled their run to an improbable division title and basking in one last "Let's Go Oakland!” chant.
"That was the best part of the whole night,” second baseman Cliff Pennington said. "It went from, ‘Man, the season is over' and the down of that to being able to walk out there and just see them one last time and kind of soak that in. That lifted you back up a little bit.”
They needed that lift after the way Justin Verlander shut them down for nine brilliant innings.
The A's struck out 11 times and managed just four hits against last year's AL Cy Young winner and MVP and were unable to complete an improbable comeback in the AL division series, losing Game 5 to the Detroit Tigers 6-0 on Thursday night.
Oakland overcame losses in the first two games of the best-of-five series and a two-run deficit in the ninth inning of Game 4 to force the decisive game against the Tigers. But Verlander proved to be too tough on this night.
"When Verlander gets on a roll like he was today, especially once he gets into his rhythm, you get into the middle innings and he's rolling along pretty good, it's tough to stop him,” manager Bob Melvin said. "It's like a locomotive going at a high speed. He was tough to deal with. Unfortunately he had really good stuff tonight and carried it all the way through tonight.”
In what looked as if it could be a good omen for the A's, the previous four pitchers to start a winner-take-all postseason game the season after winning the Cy Young award all ended up on the losing side.
But Verlander was sharp from the start, allowing just three baserunners in the first seven innings. The two hits and one walk all came with two outs as the A's never really threatened Verlander.
Yoenis Cespedes was stranded after his double in the first, Brandon Moss was out trying to advance on a pitch in the dirt following his walk in the second and Derek Norris struck out swinging on a 98 mph fastball after Moss' two-out single in the fifth.
"He's always tough,” outfielder Coco Crisp said. "You go out there and you battle him the best that you can. Today he had some of his best stuff of the year.”
Jarrod Parker, one of a record three rookie pitchers to start in this series, pitched well again but proved to be no match for Verlander for a second time this series. After being hurt by his own error in a Game 1 loss, it was two wild pitches in a two-run third that helped do in Parker this time.
Infante led off the inning with a single and advanced on a wild pitch. Austin Jackson followed with an RBI double and went to third on Quintin Berry's sacrifice. Jackson scored on a second wild pitch, giving Detroit a 2-0 lead.
Parker left with runners on first and third with one out in the seventh and sat in the dugout with a towel draped over his head in frustration. That only grew deeper when the bullpen those two runners and two others to score that inning to make it 6-0.
The A's were never supposed to be in this position after trading top starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey in the offseason as they were building for the future.
That future came quicker than anyone expected as Oakland overcame a major league-low payroll of $59.5 million to beat out the big-spending Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels for the AL West title. They wrapped up that title with a three-game sweep of Texas in the final regular season series, bringing a rare excitement and intensity to an out-of-date stadium that has struggled to attract fans in recent years.
That carried over to the postseason as the A's staved off elimination the previous two nights, including the dramatic comeback from two runs down in the ninth inning Wednesday to force Game 5.
The A's were hoping to ride the momentum from that three-run rally to win a postseason series for just the second time since 1990. Four teams previously had overcome a two-run deficit in the ninth inning or later of a potential elimination game and went on to win the series.
Instead of joining teams like last year's St. Louis Cardinals that accomplished the unlikely feat, the A's can only take those memories — not a series win — with them from their 15th walkoff win of the season Wednesday night.
"This team has just been so amazing throughout the entire year,” third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "We've put a really great run together. It was something special and hopefully something to look forward to next year.”