Justin Verlander answers challenge
October, 4, 2011
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com
Who says rain-delayed drama isn’t the best kind? CC Sabathia versus Justin Verlander was the heavyweight title bout we’ve all been waiting for. What Monday night's game lacked in perfect pitching it made up for with a see-saw blend of execution and mishaps, heroics and humble pie.
For all the buildup about Verlander -- who had the best single season on the mound for Detroit since Mickey Lolich in 1971 -- you might have wondered if his season was “just” a season that benefited from an unbalanced schedule. While he had a pair of quality starts against the Yankees this year, they were hardly dominant as he tossed two six-inning, three-run ballgames. Get that in October from your ace, and that’s the sort of game that might net you a no-decision. And on the Tigers’ 2006 pennant-winning team, Verlander wasn’t a world beater in the postseason; he was a 23-year-old phenom behind the team’s veteran hurlers.
Five years later and after Friday night’s washout put things on hold, Verlander came into his first full 2011 postseason start as an ace with something to prove. Four pitches into Monday’s game, with a run already in and with former teammate and MVP frenemy Curtis Granderson standing on third base with a triple, Verlander looked to be proving something not so happy for Tigers fan. But after Granderson came home, Verlander cruised through the next five frames.
For the Bombers, the news couldn’t get much worse than when they saw Yankees relievers warming up in the fifth inning. Really? On a Sabathia night? If the Yankees were looking to get over the Game 3 hump with an advantage, this was definitely not supposed to be part of the program.
New York could thank the Tigers for playing AL East-brand baseball at the plate -- they made Sabathia work at-bat after at-bat. Throwing 106 pitches isn’t a rough night for Sabathia, but 106 pitches without getting through the sixth inning after allowing 13 baserunners? That’s taxation through Tigers representation, making the big man sweat and wear down long before Verlander was anywhere close to being gassed.
The durability of the game’s reigning ace was on display in the seventh, and again in the eighth. In the seventh, the Yankees' ability to tie the game hung on the slightest bit of execution. If Austin Jackson and Jhonny Peralta successfully hooked up on the cutoff after Brett Gardner's run-scoring double to the left-center gap, maybe Russell Martin holds up at third, maybe he’s out at home, and maybe Peralta misses the throw too.
Missing on that play guaranteed a 4-4 tie. But after Delmon Young put the Tigers ahead by blasting a homer to right field in the bottom half of the inning, most skippers might have reached for their 'pen in the eighth -- especially one as well-stocked as the Tigers' corp.
Not Jim Leyland. Verlander came out for the eighth. He’d face the Yankees’ best -- Granderson and Robinson Cano, A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. Whether or not Leyland scrambled to the tunnel for a quick smoke to settle his nerves, we’ll never know. But in that situation he left his best pitcher out there and Verlander delivered. He left the game after throwing 120 pitches. A familiar workload for Verlander, who has matched or topped 120 pitches 10 or more times each of the past three years.
All of which set up Tigers closer Jose Valverde to be the goat or the agent of a self-fulfilling prophecy. With a capacity for drama you’d expect from a guy who already predicted a series win, Valverde put two men on before striking out Yankees captain Derek Jeter. If you can walk the walk, you can talk the talk. After Verlander delivered more proof of his status as an ace in his prime, it might just be the Tigers’ time to roar.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.