BOSTON -- Among pitchers of a certain mindset, it has become fashionable to profess indifference to who might be pitching for the other side. You know, the old, “I’m not facing him, I’m facing his team’s hitters” response.
Daniel Bard was a refreshing exception. The Red Sox pitcher acknowledged he was looking forward to Tuesday night’s matchup against Detroit’s Justin Verlander, the reigning American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner.
“Yeah, I’m excited about it,’’ Bard said Monday. “Pretty cool. I don’t have to stand in the box against him, which I’m happy about. Offensively, we’re swinging it good for the most part lately. Hopefully they can give me three or four runs and we can win with that.’’
Verlander, who went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts last season, received 13 first-place votes in winning 71 percent of possible points in the MVP balloting, finishing well ahead of Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who received four first-place votes and 62 percent of the possible points. (Toronto’s Jose Bautista received five first place votes.)
While Ellsbury is injured and Bautista has struggled, the Tigers’ ace has continued to perform at a rarefied level, beginning with his Opening Day performance against the Sox in which he held Boston to two hits in eight scoreless innings, striking out seven.
He leads the American League with a 2.15 ERA, he is tied with Seattle’s Felix Hernandez in strikeouts with 75, and his WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is 0.81, which would tie him with Greg Maddux (1995) for sixth-lowest all time. Only Pedro Martinez (0.737) has had a lower WHIP in the last 100 seasons.
And Verlander’s last two starts, both complete games, have ranked with his greatest performances ever. He took a no-hitter into the ninth against Pittsburgh until Josh Harrison singled with one out, finishing with a one-hitter and a dozen strikeouts.
In his last start, in Cleveland, he was beaten 2-1 but in his last inning he struck out Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Kipnis and Daniel Cabrera on a total of 11 pitches, Choo and Kipnis on fastballs that four times in the inning exceeded 100 mph and averaged 99, Cabrera on a called third-strike curveball.
"In 49 years I've never seen anything like it," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said afterward.
"We were talking after the game," Leyland said. "(We) said that was the best inning we've ever seen pitched in a game."
Best pitcher in the game? Bard is on board.
“Got to be,’’ he said. “Day in and day out, I don’t think there’s anybody you’d pick to pitch a game over him. He’s as dominant as they come.’’
In Verlander’s last five starts against the Red Sox, dating to Aug. 13, 2009, he has never pitched fewer than seven innings and has held the Sox to six earned runs in 38 2/3 innings, a 1.40 ERA. In three of those starts, he held the Sox scoreless, and gave up three runs in the other two.
He has not been charged with a loss in any of those five starts but came away as the winner only twice, with three no decisions. In each of the last two times he has pitched at Fenway, the Tigers have lost 4-3, including last May 19, when David Ortiz and J.D. Drew homered off Verlander and the Sox won in walk-off fashion on a single by Carl Crawford (remember him?) off Tigers reliever Al Alburquerque.
Bard, meanwhile, will be looking to restore some velocity to a fastball that last season averaged 97.2 mph, second only among AL pitchers to the Angels’ Jordan Walden (97.5) but has noticeably dipped in his last two starts, averaging 92 and touching 94.
“He can pitch effectively [at that velocity]. But again, is it him?’’ manager Bobby Valentine said. “You want someone to feel good about themselves and I think he feels good about himself when he can throw the ball fast when he wants to.
“Otherwise he’s something other than what he might think of himself. I’m not speaking for Daniel. I’m speaking as an observer and as a coach, manager.’’
Bard, who said his arm feels great, was encouraged by the work he has done between starts.
“I had a really good side session two days ago,’’ he said. “I think we kind of figured out a couple of tweaks. You probably won’t see a difference in my delivery, but I’m hoping they make a bit of a difference.
“Just kind of getting back to a little more like how I threw out of the bullpen. We looked at video. Not a big difference, but a couple little things we picked up might help out. We’ll see what it happens.’’
Valentine mentioned that, to him, it appeared Bard was a “half-beat” off in his delivery.
“Really, it’s just inconsistencies,’’ Bard said. “Timing and posture going through my delivery lead to inconsistencies to my arm angle. That’s a symptom more than a problem. Instead of treating the symptom, we’re trying to find the root of the problem.
“I think it’s mostly mechanical issues. If I can clear that up, we should see some pretty big improvement as soon as I’m comfortable throwing that way.’’
But hitting 100 after pitching eight innings, like Verlander?
“I don’t know how he does that,’’ Bard said. “Pretty unbelievable.’’