Verlander's gem puts Tigers one game from World Series

Verlander's gem puts Tigers one game from World Series
October 17, 2012, 5:30 am
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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.