OAKLAND, Calif. – The Detroit Tigers are 24 hours into their postseason, they’re a win in, on the road, and the ball goes to Justin Verlander, the 30-year-old former MVP and Cy Young Award winner, and this is when a ballclub begins to feel the wind on its numbers.
The Tigers howled, and whooped, and who knows what else late Friday night here, after they’d beaten the Oakland A’s by a 3-2 score, struck out 16 of them, generally kept the O.co Coliseum rowdies sitting on their vuvuzelas, and then perhaps overheard their closer, Joaquin Benoit, observe, “I feel like we’re already on the verge of the World Series again.”
It all sounds pretty good, as long as you overlook the fact Miguel Cabrera doesn’t ever look comfortable, not in the field and not in the batter’s box. And that the Tigers won the first two games of last year’s division series and still had to play a Game 5 in this very venue, which ended fine for them because Verlander took the postseason on his narrow and capable shoulders and threw a four-hitter. As much as any, in part because the New York Yankees were in no shape to put up a fight, that was the game that pushed the Tigers into the World Series.
Big game. Loud arena. October chill. Verlander. Sounds like the Tigers.
Except Game 1 came and went, and the guy who was huffing 97-mph fastballs past the A’s was Max Scherzer, who stepped out of Verlander’s shadow, won 21 games, had a WHIP under 1, and became The Guy. Which left Verlander as the Game 2 starter, because, hey, it happens, he wasn’t as good as Scherzer. Verlander had spent the season falling out of and back into his mechanics, which is a heckuva thing for a pitcher who was pretty close to perfect for at least two seasons and maybe more.
It’s not that Verlander wasn’t good. He was. He’s right there with many of the No. 2’s in the postseason, better than most, not as good as others, still Verlander and still not quite. And that’s why Saturday night’s game here – Verlander vs. rookie Sonny Gray – looks less like a pushover and more like a curiosity. Gray has 10 mostly excellent starts in the big leagues. Verlander, well, we can’t be sure exactly.
His ERA was up about eight-tenths of a run over the season before, and by more than a run over the season before that. His walks were up, his innings were down, and maybe that’s the result of pitching into late October, or maybe it’s just the flesh-and-blood aspect of a difficult game, or maybe we all have come to expect too much every single day from an arm that can’t always be, well, perfect.
“I think some of it is probably not up to the standards that the national media and everybody was used to,” manager Jim Leyland said.
But, then, these would be Verlander’s standards as well. He became tougher when other pitchers had long before ceded to the bullpen. He threw harder when other pitchers became vulnerable. Hell, he got the ball in Game 1.
“The funny thing is, if it wasn’t me, this probably would be a non-issue,” Verlander said of Leyland’s decision. “Max is the best pitcher in the American League. The only reason this is being brought up is what I’ve done over the last couple of years.”
If that sounds a little on the self-aware side, so be it. It’s true. Not long ago the best pitcher in the game, Verlander comes to his 13th career postseason start as the second-best pitcher on his staff. Plenty of that belongs to Scherzer, who developed a reliable curve ball to battle the left-handed hitters, who went about burying hitters in the strike zone, and who was dominant Friday night. Some of it belongs to Verlander, who was, you know, good this season. He was … good.
“I honestly don’t look at myself any differently,” Verlander said. “We aren’t robots. Things aren’t always perfect. And this is a season that opened my eyes to that fact. The last couple years came pretty easy to me, right from spring training, from jump street. It was like, ‘OK, my pitches are good, go from there.’
“This year wasn’t like that. I would fix something and that would cause a kink in the chain, and I would fix that. It was a matter of getting myself to where I need to be. It was a year-long battle, I’m not going to lie.”
In that regard, September came along at a wonderful time. In six starts, his ERA was 2.27. He also threw five of those against the Kansas City Royals (twice), Seattle Mariners, Minnesota Twins and Miami Marlins, some of the tamer lineups in baseball.
“I don’t think he was ever unsure,” teammate Torii Hunter said. “You know Verlander, he wasn’t unsure. It’s just weird to see him with a 3.6 [ERA]. He’s not pitched bad. He’s pitched OK. Just for him, it’s not Verlander.”
For the Tigers, up a game, down a middle-of-the-lineup slugger, and working on feeling that helping wind, a little vintage Verlander would go a long way. It has before.
“I felt like the last couple of starts were where I needed to be,” he said. “It’s funny it took all year, but hopefully I figured it out and am peaking at the right time.”