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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
It's turning into the Year of Verlander

By David Schoenfield


OK, it got a little nervous there for Tigers fans in the ninth inning. A little sweat. A little pacing. Maybe a few words you don’t want the kids to hear when Robinson Cano singled with two outs off Phil Coke, moving the tying run to second base and bringing up ... Raul Ibanez.

Mr. Ninth Inning himself.

Coke threw six straight fastballs. Ibanez took three and fouled three off. The count was full. The runners were moving, the fans were up and hoping disaster could be avoided. Coke threw a slider on the seventh pitch. What a slider. Swing and a miss.

Just a routine 2-1 victory for the Tigers. One win away from the World Seriees.

* * * *

I suppose there was a chance the Yankees would break out of their slump in this game. I mean, they did score the second-most runs in the American League, hit the most home runs, drew the second-most walks. They have a few guys that have accomplished a few things in their careers.

But not on this night. Not on a 56-degree evening in Detroit that got chillier as the innings rolled along. And certainly not against Justin Verlander.

Verlander dominated without dominating, if that makes sense. He finished with just three strikeouts. But he walked nobody -- something he’d done in just four starts this season -- and took a shutout into the ninth inning.

Early on, Verlander was efficient and cool. He does have issues at times in the first inning -- he had a 4.09 ERA in the first inning during the regular season, 2.41 after -- but cruised through a perfect three innings, throwing just 33 pitches. That pitch count was a good sign for the Tigers and a bad one for the Yankees: It ensured Verlander would be going deep into this game.

Detroit's Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander allowed just one run in 8 1/3 innings against the Yankees.
In the middle innings, his command wavered, but when he fell behind in the count he would usually rear back and give the Yankees the old No. 1. Brett Gardner led off the fourth and worked the count to 3-1, but perhaps showing his rustiness (he was making his first start since April 17) fouled off three straight fastballs out of the zone before Verlander threw a not-very-nice 86-mph changeup that Gardner popped up to catcher Alex Avila.

He fell behind Ichiro Suzuki with three balls, got the count full, but Suzuki poked a fastball into left field for the Yankees’ first hit. He fell behind Mark Teixeira and Cano as well but retired both. In the fifth, he went 2-0 to Ibanez and Eric Chavez, but retired both. In the sixth, Curtis Granderson missed a meaty 3-1 fastball down the middle, popping up to third.

Verlander was terrific. But the Yankees were terrible. As Verlander kept falling behind in the count, they were getting fastballs over the plate. Of course, a Verlander fastball isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill fastball.

By the ninth, Verlander’s pitch count was up to 115. His season high was 132 pitches and he’d topped 125 just three times. His career high is 133, in last year's ALCS. With a quick inning, however, he would go the distance and finish off his second straight shutout.

Eduardo Nunez had a terrific nine-pitch at-bat, finally powering a curveball over the left-field fence for a home run that prevented the Yankees from becoming the first team since the 1991 Pirates to get shut out in consecutive playoff games. Gardner had a tough eight-pitch at-bat before tapping back to Verlander. That was it for Verlander; 132 pitches.

Asked after the game about coming out, Verlander hesitated before saying he had faith in his bullpen. He was still throwing in the upper 90s but his inability to finish off Nunez or Gardner was perhaps a sign that he was about done. Still: It takes guts to take out Verlander with two outs to go in a 2-1 game and no reliable closer in your ’pen.

"I was up around 130 pitches or so," Verlander said. "I don’t think they’re going to leave me out there and sacrifice the rest of the postseason just for this game, especially when Coke’s been throwing the ball extremely well."

Verlander has not allowed two runs in 24 1/3 innings this postseason. While 2011 seemed to go down as The Year of Verlander when he hauled off MVP and Cy Young trophies, I'm starting to wonder if 2012 won't go down as The Year of Verlander II -- in which he ends up hoisting the big trophy.

* * * *

I thought Joe Girardi messed up the ninth inning. Right-handed batters destroyed Coke this season --.396/.446/.604. Coke came into to face Suzuki, an obvious pinch-hitting opportunity even though Ichiro had two of the Yankees' three hits at the time. As bad as Alex Rodriguez has looked this postseason, most of that badness has come against right-handers. He's actually 3-for-5 against lefties. Ibanez, despite his late-inning heroics and home run off Orioles lefty Brian Matusz in the Division Series, hit .196 with no homers off left-handers in the regular season. Girardi could have sent three righties up against Coke -- A-Rod, Teixeira and Swisher. Instead he let Coke face two left-handers. He let his emotions get in the away of making the right -- and obvious -- move.

* * * *

The Yankees are now hitting .200 in the postseason and .182 in this series. The Yankees may not match the .155 of the Twins in the 1969 ALCS for lowest team average in a league championship series, but it's certainly one of the most pathetic offensive displays in playoff history. Cano was 0-for-29 before his two-out single off Coke. Granderson is hitting .103. Chavez, Girardi's replacement for the benched A-Rod, is hitless in 14 at-bats.

Look, Girardi can make all the gut calls he wants and move guys around in the lineup and all that stuff that makes him feel like he has some control over the game. He doesn't. This one looks like a sweep, Max Scherzer over CC Sabathia on Wednesday and the Tigers back in the World Series for the first time since 2006.