- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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For his next act, I half expect Justin Verlander to string a tightrope over the Detroit River and walk across it while carrying Prince Fielder on his back or maybe careen down Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel. Or maybe just eat fire.
That's certainly what comes out of his hand when he pitches and it's certainly hard to deny that Verlander is the greatest pitching show on earth on right now, a get-your-money's-worth entertainment package complete with suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat dramatic finishes.
On Monday night in Kansas City, Verlander threw another dominating eight innings, leading 3-1 with a comfortable five-hitter in his back pocket. He had retired 12 of the 13 previous hitters and appeared ready to finish off his first victory of the year.
Before we get to the exciting conclusion, remember his first two starts. On Opening Day, Verlander threw eight shutout innings against Boston only to see Jose Valverde blow the lead in the ninth when Jim Leyland removed Verlander after 104 pitches. Last week against Tampa Bay, he took another 2-0 lead into the ninth, cruising along on 82 pitches. But he gave up three singles and a walk, the Rays tied the game, Leyland took him out after 105 pitches and Valverde gave up a two-run, go-ahead single.
Verlander blamed himself for that loss. After pitching comfortably in the low- to mid-90s most of the game, with terrific movement on his pitches, he let loose on his famous fastball in the ninth. In doing so, however, his fastball flattened out. Evan Longoria's game-tying hit came on a 100-mph heater that he bounced into left field.
"Once a couple guys got on, really the first time I've cranked it up like that -- and lost a little bit of my consistency that I'd had all day," Verlander said after the loss. "It's inexcusable. This loss rests solely on my shoulders today."
With that game in mind, that's why it was surprising the same thing happened again. Verlander cranked up the fastball and the Royals started reaching base. Billy Butler singled. With two outs, Verlander fell behind Humberto Quintero 3-0 and then Quintero lined a 3-1, 98-mph fastball off the glove of Prince Fielder for an RBI single. Verlander walked Mitch Maier on five pitches. Leyland visited the mound.
Verlander repeated Leyland's message to him after the game: "You're going to get me fired."
Verlander then drilled Alcides Escobar on a 98-mph fastball that rode in and hit Escobar's back elbow, somehow not shattering it into 98 bone fragments. Fired? How about a heart attack. Leyland may have to give up smoking on days Verlander pitches.
That set the stage for the final act. Verlander versus Alex Gordon, Kansas City's left fielder who hit .303 a season ago but entered the at-bat hitting .132. Verlander had thrown 125 pitches. Valverde? Nowhere to be seen after throwing 21 pitches on Sunday. This would be Verlander's game. His shoulders.
Pitch No. 127: 100 mph, fouled back.
Pitch No. 128: 100 mph, up high.
Pitch No. 129: 100 mph, inside.
Pitch No. 130: An 88-mph changeup that tailed back across the inside corner for a strike, a pitch that made grown men cry and children recoil in horror. At least if they were rooting for the Royals.
Pitch No. 131: 100 mph, inside corner or probably a little inside, Gordon can't pull the trigger, home-plate ump Wally Bell rings him up.
Exhale. Or throw up, depending on your team of choice. The 131 pitches were the second-highest total of Verlander's career. His four hardest pitches of the game all came against the final batter.
Look, it was a tough pitch for Gordon to take. It was interesting to see two different tweets from Royals fans -- Craig Brown, who writes our Royals Authority blog; and Rany Jazayerli, who writes the Rany on the Royals blog.
Can't blame Gordon on that SO looking. Sometimes a pitch is in a spot where the hitter can't pull the trigger. It happens.
— Craig Brown (@royalsauthority) April 17, 2012
It's just one at-bat-an incredibly crucial at-bat-but that was the old Gordon. Unable to pull the trigger on a borderline 2-strike pitch.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) April 17, 2012
Which side are you on? There's the old axiom of protecting the plate with two strikes, although I'm not sure that axiom was created with 100-mph fastballs in mind. Bell's strike zone had been shaky all night, however, something Gordon should have been aware of.
But Gordon is hardly the first batter to fail against Verlander with two strikes. As Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, hitters are .073 (3-for-41) against Verlander this season with two strikes. A year ago they hit .134 with two strikes in 566 plate appearances.
So I guess I'm willing to cut Gordon some slack on this one. I'm also willing to watch Verlander's next start: Saturday afternoon against the Rangers. I believe he'll provide the fire once again.
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Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
For his next act, I half expect Justin Verlander to string a tightrope over the Detroit River and walk across it while carrying Prince Fielder on his back or maybe careen down Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel.