Commentary

Call it the ultimate October challenge

Down 0-2, Yankees face huge obstacle in Game 3 of the ALCS: Justin Verlander

Updated: October 15, 2012, 11:10 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- The New York Yankees are plummeting to earth faster than Felix Baumgartner. Judging from the fan and media ire after seven postseason games, Alex Rodriguez is finished, Nick Swisher can't leave town soon enough, Curtis Granderson is a left-handed Rob Deer, and Robinson Cano is too disinterested and unclutch to share the same double-play air space with Derek Jeter, much less merit a $200 million contract. In the midst of failure this pronounced, judgment in the big city can be both quick and merciless.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander is 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in two postseason starts this year.

Here's the scariest part: Compared to what the New York hitters are about to face, the first two games of the American League Championship Series might feel a lot like batting practice.

The Yankees are hitting .192 with a .584 OPS as a team against Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and the Detroit Tigers' bullpen, and the numbers would be even grimmer if not for Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez providing a brief spasm of resistance with two-run homers off Tigers closer Jose Valverde in the series opener.

Now the degree of difficulty is ratcheted up exponentially. Trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, the Yankees will line up and take their hacks Tuesday against Justin Verlander, an elite pitcher at the top of his game. For opponents in search of optimism, he's a living, breathing antidote to hope.

Verlander might well lose out on his second straight Cy Young Award to Tampa Bay's David Price, who went 20-5 with a league-leading 2.56 ERA. But his season has been impressive nevertheless. Verlander made his fifth All-Star Game, passed Jim Bunning on the Tigers' career strikeout list, and flirted with his third no-hitter in May before allowing a ninth-inning single to Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison.

On a more downbeat note, Verlander's streak of consecutive starts of six innings or longer finally ended at 63. He lost 4-1 to Boston on July 31 in a game that was called after five innings because of rain.

When we last saw Verlander, he was churning out a performance that ranked up there with the best in the Bob Gibson, Jack Morris, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz power righty postseason catalogues. After the Oakland Athletics erased a 2-0 division series deficit to Detroit with back-to-back victories at O.co Coliseum, Verlander walked into a hostile environment and put the clamps on the home team's euphoria. He struck out 11, walked one and allowed only four hits in a 6-0 shutout that left observers grasping for superlatives to describe his dominance.

The Tigers, of course, are downplaying the notion they have the Yankees right where they want them with Verlander, Max Scherzer and Fister lined up to pitch the next three games at Comerica Park. Manager Jim Leyland told reporters Monday that the Yankees simply have too good a lineup not to break out here soon. And general manager Dave Dombrowski, who is paid to worry, refused to acknowledge that he's confident with the situation, much less comfortable.

"We came out of [New York] as well as we could possibly come out," Dombrowski said. "We're up two-to-zero. But that doesn't mean anything. It takes four. So no, I'm not relaxed at all."

Based on the numbers, the mere thought of facing Verlander might prompt some New York hitters to start breathing into brown paper bags. Verlander is a sterling 9-2 with a 1.65 ERA at home this year. As the chart to the right shows, several New York hitters also struggle mightily against him. Mark Teixeira has a .171 career slugging percentage against Verlander, and Swisher has whiffed a staggering 23 times in 61 career at-bats against him.

You've heard the phrase "Dead Men Walking?" If previous form holds, the Yankees could be "Dead Men Striking Out."

In two career postseason appearances against New York, Verlander is 1-0 with a 5.02 ERA. The first of those two outings came in October 2006, a mere 2½ years after San Diego selected Matt Bush with the top pick in the draft and the grateful Tigers snagged Verlander with the second choice.

"To be honest, I don't remember much about it," Verlander said of that start six years ago. "It was such a whirlwind that entire season. I remember standing on the mound in old Yankee Stadium. Growing up as a kid, you would see all the postseason games and all the magic that happened in that stadium. It was kind of a surreal moment for me.

"Fast-forward six years, and it's a little bit different. There's still the angst and the nervousness and the pregame jitters. But I've pitched in some big games now and I understand what my body and mind will be going through. I'm able to rein it in a little bit more and use it to my advantage rather than have it be detrimental to me."

Verlander has gradually morphed into a different pitcher in recent years. According to FanGraphs, he thew his fastball 56 percent of the time this season compared to 68 percent three years ago. Verlander has filled the void with a few more changeups and a lot more sliders. He also has that knee-buckling curve at his disposal when the situation calls for it.

"Early in his career, his off-speed stuff wasn't as developed," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "He didn't throw the slider and his changeup was still a work in progress. That's what got him into high pitch counts early in games. He came to realize, 'I can get quick outs using off-speed pitches,' and that allowed him to go deeper into games. He's evolved from a guy who has great stuff into a guy who has great stuff and can pitch."

Best of luck telling Verlander it's time to hit the showers. This year he threw a major league-high 3,768 pitches to 3,616 for Tampa Bay's James Shields, who ranked second in that category. It marked the third time in the past four seasons that Verlander led the majors in number of pitches thrown.

At various points in his career, Verlander might have put a little too much thought into his velocity. When he wasn't throwing 98 or 99 mph out of the chute to announce his presence with authority, he was dialing his fastball back to the low 90s in the early innings in hopes of leaving something in reserve for the seventh, eighth and ninth. But now he's reached a stage where the radar gun readings are almost an afterthought.

"I'm not coming out of the gates trying to throw as hard as I can, but I'm not holding anything back either," Verlander said. "I'm trying to find a good comfortable rhythm where I can pitch at a decent velocity and hit my locations. That's the kind of the mentality I've had. I summarize it this way: Don't worry about pitch counts. Get guys out the best you can and see where things are at the end of the day."

At 29, Verlander has struck just the right balance and put himself on a fast track to Cooperstown. Like Roy Halladay and a select few others, he has warmed to the big stage and learned to embrace postseason baseball with all the demands and rewards that it brings.

"There's a lot to be said for being a horse," Leyland said. "But it's hard to be a horse, because the expectations are so high. Justin has matured so much as a pitcher. He's figured out different ways to get people out without overexerting himself, but he still has something left in the tank if he needs it. I think a lot of it is how you handle this stuff mentally. He has grown by leaps and bounds in that area."

If the Yankees have any intention of making this a competitive series, they'll have to get through Justin Verlander first. October challenges don't come any bigger than this.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer