SAN FRANCISCO -- During Justin Verlander's incredible run with the Detroit Tigers, we've had a chance to watch him celebrate no-hitters, get tossed out of the "Perfect Club" by model Kate Upton in a TV commercial, wax ecstatic over his Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, and find a way to keep his eye on the ultimate prize while having ice-cold bubbly poured over his head during a pennant celebration.
In Game 1 of the World Series, a national television audience got a rare glimpse of Verlander's incredulous face.
Verlander was in a two-run hole Wednesday night and had just thrown two straight changeups out of the zone to Pablo Sandoval when Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones came to the mound for a visit. Verlander is accustomed to talking to Jones in the clubhouse, the bullpen, the dugout or the video room, but they rarely if ever converse in the middle of the diamond in the third inning. So Verlander assumed a half-smile, half-blank stare as Jones approached him for a chat. Verlander might have been less surprised if a unicorn had bounded from the stands onto the field of play.
"I'm somebody who likes to work off rhythm," Verlander said, "and I usually know what I'm doing out there, even when things are going wrong. I don't think any pitcher likes to see a pitching coach come out there. I told Jeff, 'All you did was get the crowd really into it right now. They're all chanting and yelling.' We had a little laugh about that."
The laughter ceased for Detroit when Sandoval launched the next pitch over the fence for the second of his three home runs on the evening. Before the Giants' 8-3 victory was through, Detroit manager Jim Leyland took advantage of an opportunity to give a rusty bullpen some work, and Jhonny Peralta hit a late two-run homer off George Kontos to make the score a tad more respectable. But that pretty much exhausted the Tigers' inventory of silver linings.
So much for conventional wisdom. The Giants entered the Series with momentum; home-field advantage; a scrappy, contact-hitting lineup; and 2010-caliber karma permeating their clubhouse. But the Tigers were fresh off an American League Championship Series sweep in which they held the New York Yankees to a .157 team batting average and six runs in four games. No pitcher in the game embodies an aura of dominance more than Verlander, who typically throws 94 to 96 mph out of the gate in the name of "pacing" himself, trends closer to 100 in the late innings and is capable of throwing 120 to 130 pitches whenever necessary.
On this night, Verlander's performance was less a page from the Jack Morris-John Smoltz-Curt Schilling school of postseason swagger than a descent into some undistinguished company. As the Elias Sports Bureau duly notes, Verlander joined non-household names "Kickapoo Ed" Summers and Claude Preston "Lefty" Williams as the third AL pitcher to lose his first three career World Series starts.
Summers achieved the feat for the 1908-09 Tigers. Williams dropped three in a row during the 1919 World Series and was banned from baseball by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for his role in the Black Sox scandal. Verlander lost his first two World Series games in 2006 as a talented-yet-high-strung rookie with a reputation for getting overly "amped" on the big stage. It wasn't supposed to happen this time around. But he was done in Wednesday by a budding nemesis, some bad karma and a pronounced failure to put his fastball where he wanted it.
In the first inning of the All-Star Game in July, Verlander gave up a triple to Sandoval on a changeup. "The Panda" hit his first homer of the World Series on an 0-2 fastball above the letters and jumped on Verlander again after Jones' mound visit to give San Francisco a 4-0 lead. The TV cameras captured a disbelieving Verlander mouthing the word "Wow!" as he watched Sandoval's second home run ball drifting over the left-field fence. Think Dennis Eckersley uttering the same exclamation after a young Manny Ramirez took him deep in 1995.
As the night unraveled, Verlander's wandering heater proved to be his undoing. Sandoval was the undisputed star of the evening, but Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro strung together the two at-bats that sent Verlander on his downward path. With two outs in the third inning, Pagan ended a long at-bat by bouncing a double off the third-base bag. Then Scutaro lined an RBI single to center to give San Francisco a 2-0 lead. The Giants' No. 1 and 2 hitters saw a combined 16 pitches in the two plate appearances, and fouled off eight of them.
"Guys like that aren't going to do as much damage as far as hitting home runs, but they're going to have good at-bats," Detroit catcher Alex Avila said. "When the ball is in the middle of the plate, guys are going to make contact. That's why we throw to the corners -- that's where the outs are. Fastball command is a big key for Justin and a lot of guys."
Is it disappointing? Yeah. Would you have liked to have won Game 1? Absolutely. But the three guys behind me have been pretty dag-gone good as well. This isn't the end of the world by any means.
”-- Justin Verlander
According to FanGraphs, Verlander elicited the fifth-lowest contact percentage among qualifying AL starters this season behind Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, Matt Moore and CC Sabathia. But his swing-and-miss stuff appeared only in spurts in the series opener. After retiring Brandon Crawford and Barry Zito to begin the third inning, Verlander faced 10 San Francisco hitters. He induced a grand total of one swing-and-miss (by Brandon Belt), and the Giants hit a whopping 21 foul balls.
His night complete after 98 pitches, Verlander donned his blue Tigers jacket and draped himself over the dugout railing to watch the proceedings. This was not the posture he had anticipated after going 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA against Oakland and New York in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
After the game, Verlander generally took a pass on extensive self-analysis. He said he didn't know whether the weeklong layoff affected him. He declined to critique umpire Gerry Davis' strike zone, observing that "all you can ask for is consistency." He said he tried to throw several fastballs inside to lefties only to have the ball run down and away in the strike zone.
"When the ball starts doing that, I can usually tell that I'm a little bit out of sync," Verlander said. "But in these situations, you really don't have time to rein it back in and figure it out. You just have to try to get outs the best you can."
The Tigers have a convenient crutch for their poor performance, but they expressed absolutely no interest in exercising it. After sweeping the Yankees in four games, they stayed busy during a five-day layoff by flying in instructional leaguers and holding scrimmages at Comerica Park. It's not quite the same as coping with Barry Zito and Pablo Sandoval amid the World Series pomp and circumstance, but they thought the routine was enough to prepare them for the challenge.
"I really don't use that as an excuse," center fielder Austin Jackson said. "We were definitely active during the time off. We got a chance to see live pitching and play defense and stay loose and game-ready. I definitely think it helped."
Now the Tigers will try to flush this game out of their system behind Verlander's very capable background vocalists in the rotation. Doug Fister takes the ball in Game 2 on Thursday, and Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer will pitch in Detroit before Verlander gets another opportunity in Game 5 at Comerica Park on Monday.
"Is it disappointing? Yeah," Verlander said. "Would you have liked to have won Game 1? Absolutely. But the three guys behind me have been pretty dag-gone good as well. This isn't the end of the world by any means."
No, it's not the end of the world -- or the end of the World Series. But if the Tigers aren't able to summon something better on the first California leg of the proceedings, they're in for one long and very unpleasant charter flight back to Detroit.