Verlander's gem puts Tigers one game from World Series

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Verlander's gem puts Tigers one game from World Series

DETROIT -- You can win the Cy Young Award. You can win the Most Valuable Player. You can even, as Justin Verlander did in 2011, win them both in the same season.

But great pitchers are ultimately made in October. Ask Bob Gibson. Or Sandy Koufax. Or Whitey Ford.

You can be great without an October resume. But pitching best when the games mean the most puts you in a special class of pitcher.

The League Championship Series isn't over yet, but Verlander seems destined to cement that status this month.

On Tuesday night, he blanked the New York Yankees for eight innings while not allowing a hit to anyone not named Ichiro Suzuki. In the ninth, he allowed a leadoff homer to Eduardo Nunez, cutting the Tigers' lead in half.

One out later, he was finished, having thrown an astonishing 132 pitches. Reliever Phil Coke made things interesting by allowing two singles but ultimately finished things off by striking out pinch-hitter Nick Swisher for a 2-1 Detroit victory and a commanding 3-to-0 lead in the ALCS.

Until two weeks ago, Verlander had been rather ordinary in the post-season.

In 2006, just 23, he was 1-2 in four starts with a 5.82 ERA. Even last year, after he enjoyed one of the greatest seasons by a starter in recent history, he was mediocre: 2-1 in four starts with a 5.31.

But this fall, Verlander has elevated his game the way he does his fastball. He allowed a leadoff homer to Coco Crisp in Game 1 of the Division Series against Oakland. Then, he didn't allow another run until Nunez lined a homer to left to open the ninth Tuesday night.

In between, he tossed 23 consecutive shutout innings. From the first inning of his first start through the last inning of his third start, he didn't allow a run to cross the plate.

"Guys that are good as he is, they always seem to rise to the occasion," said Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones. "He's done exactly what an ace does, what a No. 1 guy does. I think (he's cementing that) now. He always wants to be the best.

"Even when he came into spring training this year, he was focused to be the best. He wanted to have a better year than last year. I know that's virtually impossible, but that's his mindset. He wants to better every year."

On Tuesday, in what may have been equal evidence of Verlander's greatness and the Yankees' collective ineptitude, Verlander was not dominant in the traditional sense.

Verlander led all of baseball in strikeouts this season and the Yankees have been striking out this series at a record-setting pace, with 20 in the first two games. And yet Verlander recorded only three strikeouts in 8 13 innings.

But that's also evidence of Verlander's brilliance. He fell behind more than normal in the early innings and had to throw fastballs in hitter's counts. And still the Yankees couldn't make good contact.

"I think tonight, he just made them miss-hit the ball pretty good," said his manager Jim Leyland. "(The Yankees are) a tremendous hitting team with big-time power and it's a difficult lineup to manage against. So I thought (Verlander) was absolutely terrific."

And here is what's genuinely unique about Verlander: while most managers and pitching coaches look for a decline in velocity, with Verlander the telltale sign is increased velocity.

When he senses he's running out of gas, that's when he reaches back and starts throwing his fastball at 98 mph or better.

"He was extending himself a little earlier than normal," revealed Jones. "In the sixth inning, he threw some pitches at 97 mph. We can usually tell when he's trying to get after it."

Verlander is, apparently, "trying to get after it" this October. The A's can confirm that much. He went the distance against them in the deciding Game 5, on the road, and didn't allow a run. The Yankees needed a solo homer in the final inning to ruin his second straight shutout bid.

The Tigers still have to win one more, of course, and the Giants and Cardinals have enough on their plate. But whomever wins the NLCS should be put on notice: Justin Verlander is serious this October.

Advance at your own risk.

Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox’ 6-2 win over the Angels

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Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox’ 6-2 win over the Angels

Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox’ 6-2 win over the Angels:

QUOTES

* “He just had very good command the entire night. Stayed ahead in the count [and] pitched to all quadrants of the strike zone. He used his four-seamer in on some powerful right-handed hitters in their lineup.” John Farrell on Rick Porcello’s performance.

* “We needed a win bad and swung the bats well and played good defense. That’s a big win for us.” Rick Porcello said after his win in an interview with NESN.

* “24 hours ago we were probably in a much different place mentally after a ball game like tonight.” Farrell on the win.

“That was probably the first time I sat on off-speed pitches this whole year. I took a chance, took a gamble.” Jackie Bradley Jr. said on his home run.

NOTES

* Rick Porcello completed his first game in a Red Sox uniform in the 6-2 win. The CG was the fifth of his career and his first since he threw three in 2014. The righty has 14 wins, one win shy of tying his career high.

* Xander Bogaerts had his first multi extra-base hit performance of the season since June 11. He’s only done that twice this season. He extended his hitting streak to 11 games.

* David Ortiz logged his 85th RBI of the season in the win and Mookie Betts his 67th. Heading into Friday night’s game, the two were one of five pairs of teammates ranking in the top 20 in RBI. The list includes Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, Adam Duvall and Jay Bruce and Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

* Dustin Pedroia has now reached base safely in 32 straight games.

STARS

1) Rick Porcello

Porcello had his first complete game in a Red Sox uniform, stopping Boston’s losing skid at four games.

2) Xander Bogaerts

Bogaerts finished with a double and a home run -- the only Boston hitter with multiple hits. He also led the Red Sox with three RBI and scoring twice in the win.

3) Dustin Pedroia

In addition to walking in his first two at-bats, Pedroia had a base hit -- and another walk -- scoring twice on the night.

First impressions of the Red Sox' 6-2 win over the Angels

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First impressions of the Red Sox' 6-2 win over the Angels

First impressions of the Red Sox 6-2 win over Los Angeles:

Rick Porcello is not fazed by his fellow staff members’ struggles.

Although his teammates continue to deal with frustrations on almost a nightly basis, Porcello got the job done and put Boston in a position to win once again.

The second-inning double by Daniel Nava should have been a single, had Jackie Bradley Jr. not misplayed a funny hop. If that hit is a single, the next ground ball is a double -- and the following grounder ends the inning.

One of the most impressive components of his outing was dealing with Cole Kalhoun, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols to finish his outing after already facing them three times on the night.

Xander Bogaerts had his first multi-hit game in a week.

Which in the grand scheme of things isn’t a long time -- but that can feel like a long time given the shortstop’s output this year.

It was also his first multi extra-base hit performance since June 11.

Oddly enough, those are his only two games of that kind this season.

In addition to the win, Porcello did the bullpen a favor.

Not necessarily because the relievers needed rest, but with Ziegler’s last two rough nights, they could use a break.

Although Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz got warm late, it was more so to keep them fresh for the coming games since they haven’t thrown much.

Additionally, he gave an example for the Red Sox starting rotation that they are in fact capable of going the distance.

Tim Lincecum is barely a shell of what he used to be.

That first inning was hard to watch. The former Cy Young Award-winner threw eight straight balls, and somehow managed to work past. Even his final throw to first base in he opening frame looked like it was going off the mark.

Just hard to watch in general, which made it all the more shocking that the Red Sox couldn’t score against him.

Good for them that he never adjusted, and they took advantage of it in the ensuing innings.

Merloni: ‘Missed opportunities left and right’ for Red Sox

Merloni: ‘Missed opportunities left and right’ for Red Sox

Lou Merloni talks about the Red Sox losing 6 out of the last 7 games and if David Price should have stayed in the game for the 9th inning.