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.

McAdam: Doesn't take long for second-guessing of Farrell to resume

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McAdam: Doesn't take long for second-guessing of Farrell to resume

Three takeaways from the Red Sox' 6-4 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday night . . . 

1) Long relief may be short for the Red Sox in the postseason

The news that Drew Pomeranz won't start Thursday and is dealing with forearm soreness was ominous -- to say the least. While the Sox aren't concerned enough to order up an MRI for the lefty, it seems a fair bet that he won't pitch again this season. Pomeranz wasn't going to crack the postseason rotation and would likely have been relegated to relief duty. Now, even that seems a stretch.

Add that development to the continued absence of Steven Wright and the Red Sox are missing 40 percent of their rotation from late July and early August.

Healthy, both would have been stretched-out and available to provide multiple innings in the postseason.

Of course, most teams would prefer to not have to rely on long men in the postseason, since their very appearance in a game would signifiy that a starter got knocked out early.

When that happens, however, it's nice to have experienced, dependable arms to cover innings and not impact the bullpen's high-leverage pitchers.

Now, in such a scenario, the Sox will likely have to turn to either Robbie Ross Jr. or Heath Hembree.

2) Is Aaron Hill heating up?

In the month of September, Hill has posted a line of .381/.409/.571. On Tuesday night, he blasted a pinch-hit homer.

Admittedly, that's a relatively small sample size. But Hill has had better at-bats of late, especially against lefties.

It's doubtful that he'll take over third base -- now or in the postseason -- full-time, since John Farrell has two left-handed hitting options, with Travis Shaw and Brock Holt. Shaw certainly more power and has shown the ability to go on hot streaks at the plate.

But Hill is a veteran player, albeit one with little postseason experience (11 at-bats in the Division Series for Arizona in 2011) for a 12-year veteran.

And one other benefit: Hill is a .373 career hitter as a pinch-hitter, making him a valuable part off the bench in games started by either Holt or Shaw.

3) One loss is all it took for the second-guessing to resurface

The Sox had won 11 straight before Tuesday's loss, which quickly re-introduced criticism of Farrell.

Starter David Price had given up four runs through six innings, but the Sox rallied for two runs off Tommy Layne in the seventh to tie things at 4-4.

At 76 pitches, Price went back out for the seventh and promptly yielded a two-run homer to Tyler Austin, giving the Yanks another two-run lead.

Price hadn't been sharp in the first six. With expanded rosters, plenty of available relievers and a rested bullpen after a day off Monday, why stick with Price?

Offered Farrell: "You go with a right-hander they’re going to go with [Mark] Teixeira and [Brian] McCann with that right-field porch,” Farrell said. “Wanted to keep the (right-handed hitters) in the ballgame, (but Price) mislocated over the plate.”

Felger: Will October be a dance or a dud?

Felger: Will October be a dance or a dud?

For a Red Sox team that has been the best in baseball in September and had won 11 straight prior to last night, you have to admit: There are a lot of things that could go the other way with this team in the playoffs that wouldn't surprise you.

To wit:

-- Would it surprise you if David Price blew up again in the postseason? He has a 5.12 career postseason ERA and has never won a playoff start. Was last night a precursor? He looked like his old shaky October self with a chance to clinch the division in Yankee Stadium.

-- Would it surprise you if Clay Buchholz crapped his pants when it mattered most? This is your No. 3 starter, folks, or No. 4 at worst. He's getting the ball in the playoffs either way, and if I told you that two months ago you'd tell me the Sox are sunk. He looks good now, but we all know he is the ultimate tease.

-- Would it surprise you if John Farrell blows a game with a bone-headed decision from the bench? Of course not; he's been doing that for nearly four years. Yes, he did it all the way to a title in 2013, but the possibility remains very real. It's in the back of most everyone's mind.

-- Would it surprise you if Koji Uehara regresses and the eighth inning once again becomes a problem? Uehara certainly has the experience and has pitched well recently, but the fact is that it feels like his arm is attached by a noodle.

-- Would it surprise you if some of the Sox' youth shows its age? It shouldn't. Happens all the time. Would it surprise you if Craig Kimbrel can't find the plate in a big save situation? It shouldn't. He's shown glimpses of it all season and has never pitched past the division series in his career. Would it surprise you if Hanley Ramirez makes an important mistake at first? Or the Sox' hole at third becomes a factor? Nope and nope.

We could play this game all night.

Now, what do I think is going to happen? I think the Sox are going to pitch well, even Price, and the offense will remain a force. I have full faith in Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Rick Porcello and the lineup in general. There's a feeling on this team that's hard to ignore, likely inspired by Ortiz, and I think they'll keep it going in the postseason. I agree with those who say the Sox have the most talent in the American League, so that's a great place to start. I don't know if that means the ALCS, the World Series or a championship. I just think they'll continue to play well into October.

But all of that is just a feeling, just a prediction -- and you know what those are good for. The point is this: If it goes the other way for the Sox, I think we already have the reasons why.

E-mail Felger at mfelger@comcastsportsnet.com. Listen to Felger and Mazz weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 FM. The simulcast runs daily on CSN.