- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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DETROIT -- This really shouldn't be a story. It shouldn't be news when one of the best pitchers in baseball takes the mound in his team's postseason opener and only surrenders one run in seven innings to carry his team one small step closer to the World Series.
After all, that's what the studs are supposed to do. That's why the Halladays, Lees and Sabathias of the world make enough money to purchase small countries. When the spotlight is its brightest, when the opposition is at its best, when the games matter most, they rarely lose.
For all the baseball hardware that clutters the 29-year-old's home -- trophies for Rookie of the Year, MVP and Cy Young awards, not to mention the mementoes from five All-Star Games and two no-hitters -- Verlander's postseason performance has left plenty to be desired. In fact, when the calendar has switched to October, he's often looked more like Justin Masterson than Justin Verlander.
Sure, Mother Nature didn't offer any help in a rain delay-plagued 2011 postseason. But still, numbers don't lie. In nine postseason starts before Saturday night, Verlander was 3-3 with an ERA over 5.00. His WHIP was a shocking 1.55, well over his career average of 1.17. And in three Game 1 starts, he was 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA.
But that all changed in the Motor City on Saturday night. In Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Oakland, Verlander did what aces are supposed to do, striking out 11 and giving up three hits and four walks in seven innings of one-run baseball.
Afterwards, Verlander's catcher, Alex Avila, said he and Verlander didn't do anything different to prepare for Saturday's game. They treated it like it was "the middle of May," Avila said. But at the same time, Verlander is too competitive. Too proud. Too amped up not to know the postseason numbers printed on the stat sheet next to his name. So he tried to use them to his advantage.
"Having experienced these types of atmospheres and knowing what to expect out of myself, the adrenaline, the angst, everything, I felt like I was able to corral that a little bit better," Verlander said.
He did. Eventually. It had been six days since his last start, and early on, Verlander struggled with his control. "Erratic," Avila described it. That's one of the reasons Verlander surrendered a leadoff homer to Coco Crisp. That's why he threw a wasteful 61 pitches through his first three innings. He didn't have his command. And the Oakland hitters were doing everything they could to extend at-bats, elevate his pitch count and send him to the bench ASAP.
"They did the same thing to me last time I faced them," said Verlander, referring to a Sept. 19 start in which he threw 122 pitches in six innings against the A's.
[Verlander] is a different pitcher later in the game. He knows when he's got to bear down and he knows when he can smell the end of the game coming.
”-- A's first baseman Brandon Moss
The home run to Crisp marked the eighth straight postseason start in which Verlander had given up a first- or second-inning run. Only this time, that's where the damage would end. Verlander battled his erratic control and finally found a groove in the fifth, sixth and seventh, retiring eight hitters in a row -- including five straight on strikeouts. He exited after seven innings and 120 pitches, turning the game over to Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde, who combined to give up one hit in the last two innings and preserve Detroit's 3-1 victory.
Afterwards, Verlander explained, he never cared about the pitch count.
"I didn't focus on being economical," Verlander said. "Obviously, four innings and one run is better than five innings and six runs. I just tried to continue to make my pitches and wherever the pitch count ends up, that's where it ends up."
Avila, too, was never worried. Despite Verlander's early fits of wildness, the catcher said Verlander's fastball was "explosive" and described it as one of the best he's seen in terms of movement. That would explain 21 swings and misses, the most Verlander has ever had in a postseason start and the fourth-most by any starter in a postseason game in the last four seasons. That would explain why eight of Verlander's 11 strikeouts came via the swing-and-miss.
Over in the Oakland clubhouse, the emotion most prevalent was common for a major league team that had faced one of the game's best pitchers: frustration. Brandon Moss leaned on his locker, shrugged his shoulders and shook his head when trying to explain Verlander's performance.
"I'm definitely not a big fan of his right now," said Moss, who was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts against Verlander.
He described it as vintage regular-season Verlander, getting stronger and more accurate with each pitch, each hitter, each inning. The right-hander's fastball averaged 95.3 mph through five innings and then 97.5 in the sixth and seventh. He had four fastball strikeouts in the first five innings and then four in the sixth and seventh combined.
"He's a different pitcher later in the game," Moss said. "He's a different pitcher with the lead. He's a different pitcher with runners in scoring position. He knows when he's got to bear down and he knows when he can smell the end of the game coming.
"He's already good, but he just gets a whole lot better. I don't know he throws harder. He has better location. Better movement on his off-speed [pitches]. He just gets better."
It is exactly what the Tigers had been looking for from their No. 1 starter in baseball's most important month. On Saturday, they got it.
Despite receiving next to nothing in contributions from sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder -- the duo combined to go 0-for-7 with a walk -- Verlander's success helped the Tigers snap a three-game losing streak in postseason Game 1s and now has Detroit needing to win two of the next four to advance to the ALCS. Should the series reach a deciding Game 5, Verlander will again take the ball.
"Obviously, he's not unbeatable," Moss said. "[His ERA] wasn't a zero. He gives up runs and he gets beat. But tonight was not one of those nights."
Justin Verlander has struggled in past postseasons, but he looked like an ace in Game 1 of the ALDS.