Commentary

Justin Verlander grinds out big victory

Righty didn't have his best stuff, but the Tigers' ace gutted out 8 innings in Game 3

Originally Published: October 3, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander was born and raised in Virginia, but he's enough of a civic-minded guy to understand the impact of Detroit's recent run of sports success on the city's mood. The unbeaten Lions have Sundays covered at Ford Field, and right now the Tigers are doing a good job ruling the landscape the other six days of the week. That's largely a tribute to Verlander, American League Cy Young Award frontrunner and walking Chamber of Commerce brochure.

"Bringing people to downtown Detroit helps the economy tremendously,'' Verlander said recently. "When things are going well with the sporting teams, obviously people tend to migrate there much more often.''

A Comerica Park postseason-record crowd of 43,581 migrated downtown Monday night to cheer wildly, wave white towels and watch Verlander and the New York Yankees' CC Sabathia face off in the most hyped pitching matchup of the 2011 postseason to date. The fans expected to see lots of funky, futile swings, the odd manufactured run or two, and maybe make it to the parking lot in less than three hours.

In the end, they watched a 5-4 Detroit victory that was a tribute to some of the Tigers' less-heralded offensive players, and a gutsy performance from Verlander rather than the usual jaw-droppingly spectacular effort. Verlander's Game 3 performance was more about perseverance than skill, power or pitching artistry.

Baseball fans, reporters, teammates and opponents are captivated by Verlander because he's a threat to throw a no-hitter or run up double-digit strikeouts every time he takes the mound. But sometimes ground balls find holes, the seagulls leave a few reminders on your car windshield, the cell phone reception stinks and things just don't go according to plan. And you sweat out the ninth inning, fried from throwing 120 pitches, as teammate Jose "Papa Grande'' Valverde tries to survive the obligatory control lapse and record the final out.

That's how it ended this time. After issuing a pair of walks in the ninth, Valverde blew a fastball past Derek Jeter, and the Tigers bolted from the dugout with the knowledge that they're one victory away from playing for the AL pennant.

Verlander's pitching line -- eight innings, six hits, four earned runs, three walks and 11 strikeouts -- was a testament to the occasional rough patches. During his postgame news conference, he broke into a smile when asked whether it's just as gratifying to grind out a difficult win than dominate an opponent and have everything go smoothly.

"I would rather have it go perfectly and be smooth sailing,'' Verlander said. "Obviously [in Game 3], that was not the case.''

When the series resumes Tuesday night, the intriguing subplots will keep on coming. Detroit manager Jim Leyland will start Rick Porcello, who grew up in New Jersey as a Mets rooter in a family of Yankees fans. He'll be opposed by A.J. Burnett, whose 11-11 record and accompanying 5.15 ERA scream "redemption bid.'' If this comes as any consolation to Yankees diehards, Burnett said he's brimming with confidence and is prepared to "let A.J. loose out there.''

In this environment, amid these stakes, even the most talented and accomplished starters can be challenged to keep a lid on their emotions. Even Justin Verlander, with his unhittable repertoire, is no different.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander didn't have his best stuff, but he still had plenty. That's what makes him scary.

It's common knowledge that Verlander tends to get a little "amped'' in big games, and he's made an effort to dial down the velocity in the early innings for better command within the strike zone. The Yankees took advantage in the first inning Monday.

Jeter singled on the first pitch of the game, Curtis Granderson lined a triple to the nether regions of Comerica, and an RBI groundout by Alex Rodriguez made it 2-0. And quicker than you can say "Ndamukong Suh,'' the Tigers trailed 2-0.

As the evening progressed, plate umpire Gerry Davis unwittingly became part of the storyline. Yankees manager Joe Girardi, like St. Louis's Tony La Russa the night before, did an in-game dugout interview and lamented Davis' tight strike zone on Sabathia. While Girardi reiterated those comments after the game, Leyland observed, "I thought Gerry Davis had a consistent strike zone the entire game for both teams.''

The Tigers received big contributions from unlikely places to take a 4-2 lead. Ramon Santiago, bumped up to second in the batting order because of his .292 career batting average against Sabathia, singled, doubled and drove in a pair of runs. And Brandon Inge collected two hits and scored twice from the ninth spot.

In the later innings, the "grind it out'' portion of the evening began in earnest for Verlander. After giving up a dispiriting, game-tying double to Brett Gardner in the seventh, Verlander sat in the dugout and watched Delmon Young hit a solo homer to give the Tigers a 5-4 lead. He came back out for the eighth and promptly struck out Granderson and Robinson Cano. After a walk to Alex Rodriguez, he retired Mark Teixeira on a pop fly to end the inning.

Here's the most amazing part: Verlander cracked 100 mph on the radar gun 15 times on the evening. He did it on five straight pitches during that A-Rod at-bat, when logic tells you his needle was pointing on empty.

"He had effortless velocity,'' Tigers starter Max Scherzer said. "Even late in a game, sometimes that will be his hardest fastball. You knew he was going to have it in that big a moment and be 100 or 101. For him to be able to do that and still execute at the same time, that's why he's so good.''

[+] EnlargeJose Valverde
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireJose Valverde said the series would not go back to New York. The Tigers are one win away from him being right.

Verlander has surpassed 125 pitches on six occasions this year and threw 132 in a game against Boston in late May, but Leyland had determined, with very little conversation, that 120 pitches were enough in Game 3. In the ninth inning he summoned Valverde, who elicits as much anguish as a closer can elicit when he's converted 49 saves in 49 tries during the regular season.

Valverde was a near-disaster in a 5-3 Detroit victory Sunday in Game 2. Then he had the temerity -- or the sense of humor, if you prefer -- to predict the Tigers would wrap up the series here at Comerica without the need for a Game 5 on Thursday in the Bronx.

"He's like a bad accident -- you can't take your eyes off him,'' Inge said of Valverde. "But he's fun. I never had the privilege to watch Mark Fidrych pitch, but that's what I feel like it would be. Not only do you get a great performance, but you get a show as well. I love him. It's a blast playing behind him.''

Valverde has some talented company at the back end of the pen in Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke, so it appears the Tigers have all the relievers they need. But it's natural to wonder whether there might be an interloper in the bullpen if there's a Game 5. If the series goes the distance, is it possible that Verlander could come out for a Randy Johnson-like cameo in the eighth or ninth?

According to Leyland, no way.

"I try not to do anything foolish with any of my pitchers, let alone an arm like that,'' Leyland said. "You saw what a talent that is. I would say he's definitely done for the series.''

According to Verlander & well & not so fast.

"I haven't talked to him yet,'' Verlander said. "If I need to go out there, maybe in a relief appearance or something, I'll get in his ear about that.''

If the Tigers win Game 4, it's a moot point. And if they don't, it's a fair bet that Leyland can't be swayed. But it's a mistake to write off the scenario entirely. With or without his best stuff, Justin Verlander can be one persuasive guy.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer