- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

OAKLAND, Calif. — Brandon Inge, Nate Robertson and the Detroit Tigers are showing no signs of slowing down in the AL playoffs.

Inge hit a solo home run and RBI double from the bottom of the order, Ivan Rodriguez also homered and Robertson pitched the Tigers past the Oakland Athletics 5-1 last night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

The Tigers battered Barry Zito, turned four double plays and once again relied on their flame-throwing relievers. Only one thing went wrong: Sean Casey, Detroit’s No. 3 hitter, left early because of an injured left calf.

Game 2 in the best-of-seven series — a rematch of the 1972 ALCS — is tonight, with Oakland’s Esteban Loaiza facing Justin Verlander.

Fresh off surprising the New York Yankees in four games in the opening round, the typically free-swinging Tigers worked the count against Zito.

“We thought if we slowed down against him a little bit, it would work a little better,” Inge said.

The A’s ace retired the first eight batters he faced before running into trouble, with 10 of the last 13 Tigers facing him reaching base on the way to a 5-0 lead.

The wild-card Tigers showed off their gloves, too, tying a league championship series record for double plays, last accomplished by the San Francisco Giants exactly 19 years earlier — on Oct. 10, 1987.

Robertson, who lost Game 1 against the Yankees in his postseason debut, threw five shutout innings to win for the first time in the Coliseum. The 29-year-old lefty struck out the side to escape a fourth-inning jam after Frank Thomas drew a leadoff walk and Jay Payton doubled him to third.

Oakland never trailed in its division series sweep of the Minnesota Twins, taking quick leads in all three games. This time, the A’s grounded into double plays to end both the second and third innings to squander early scoring chances, then had another double play in the fifth.

The A’s made mistakes resembling some of their blunders in four straight first-round losses from 2000 to 2003 — not the clean, crisp defense they showed in the division series. They also went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position, leaving them 3-for-34 so far this postseason.

Zito, Oakland’s lone All-Star this season, didn’t allow a hit until Inge — the No. 9 hitter — lofted a drive that stayed just inside the left-field foul pole with two outs in the third.

Curtis Granderson followed with a double, then Placido Polanco walked on Zito’s 56th pitch. After Casey followed with a walk, pitching coach Curt Young paid a visit to the mound before Magglio Ordonez’s infield single that five-time Gold Glover Eric Chavez bobbled at third base.

Zito threw 38 pitches, 18 balls, in the inning after needing only 31 to get through the first two, and he gave way to Chad Gaudin after only 3-2/3 innings. His line: seven hits, five runs, three walks and no strikeouts on 92 pitches.

Inge was 3-for-24 lifetime against Zito coming in. But just like they did the final three games with the Yankees, the Tigers found success against a starting pitcher they’d had trouble with in the past.

With two outs in the top of the sixth, Casey hit a grounder to shortstop, took one step and then grabbed his left leg in pain. He made it about halfway down the line and was thrown out to end the inning. Manager Jim Leyland and a trainer came out to tend to Casey, who hobbled to the Tigers’ clubhouse after the inning.

Robertson and his relievers were in control, with the only run coming on Payton’s RBI groundout in the eighth.

Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya each reached triple digits on the radar gun, with Zumaya topping out at 102 mph. Todd Jones finished it.

The Tigers — whose deep and talented pitching staff was baseball’s best this season — held Thomas 0-for-3 with a walk after the Big Hurt had a hit in each of the A’s first three playoff games, including two home runs in the division series opener.

Even Marco Scutaro, who matched an A’s postseason record with four RBI in the first-round clincher, went hitless — despite a sellout crowd of 35,655 chanting “Marco! Scutaro!”

Rodriguez hit his fourth career postseason homer leading off the fourth.

The Tigers’ success this season finally has allowed them to shed the loser label that came after the team’s 119-loss season three years ago. This is Detroit’s first ALCS since 1987, and the first for Oakland since 1992.

Unless the A’s reach the World Series, this was likely Zito’s last start before he is expected to leave as a free agent after the season — just like stars Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada before him.

Zito, with his nasty, looping curveball, had been 3-0 in his last five starts against the Tigers and hadn’t lost to Detroit since Aug. 7, 2003. He earned the Game 1 nod again after he beat Cy Young favorite Johan Santana in Oakland’s playoff opener against the Twins.

The A’s appeared a little bit sluggish in their first game since eliminating the Twins on Friday. Oakland, which missed the playoffs the past two years, ended a stretch of nine straight losses in potential clinching games to win a playoff series for the first time since 1990.

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