Verlander peaking just in time
The Tigers will turn to Justin Verlander to save them again in Game 3
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander has more talent at his disposal than should be permissible from a guy who began October as the No. 2 starter in his team's rotation.
Judging from the way his teammates and Detroit fans are looking forward to his next outing, he's also a walking hangover remedy.
Although the Tigers are loath to admit it, their 6-5 loss to Boston in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series was more than just a garden-variety October defeat, because of the suddenness of the Red Sox's late comeback Sunday and the questions it raised about the vulnerability of the Detroit bullpen moving forward.
People should have exited Fenway Park and turned off their televisions talking about the brilliance of Max Scherzer, and instead the game became a tribute to David Ortiz's October heroics and the exuberance of a Boston cop named Steve Horgan, who's received more publicity than any security guard since Paul Blart.
When the Tigers and Boston Red Sox meet Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET in Game 3 of the ALCS, they'll test out a few timeworn baseball homilies. Is momentum really secondary to tomorrow's (or in this case, the day after tomorrow's) starting pitcher? And if Joaquin Benoit is entrusted with a lead in the ninth inning again, will his selective memory loss allow him to embrace the moment with a clear head?
For the Tigers, any sense that Boston might have karma on its side should be neutralized by Verlander, who'll show up with his three-day beard growth and repertoire from hell in an effort to restore order to the proceedings.
That was a prominent theme in the Detroit clubhouse from the moment Jarrod Saltalamacchia's single gave Boston a walk-off win in Game 2. Torii Hunter emerged from his unexpected flip into the Boston bullpen with a case of general soreness, but perked up at the mention of Verlander gearing up to start Game 3. Prince Fielder doesn't have a home run or an RBI in 25 postseason at-bats, but the Tigers probably don't need to produce runs in waves when they're playing behind Verlander. You get the picture.
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Truth is, Verlander is just one dominant arm in a Tigers rotation that's built for a lengthy October run. Doug Fister, Detroit's fourth starter, finished the regular season with as many quality starts (22) as Verlander and Felix Hernandez. Anibal Sanchez and Scherzer combined to strike out 25 Boston hitters in the first two games of this series, and Detroit's 32 strikeouts overall were a record for a pitching staff in consecutive postseason games.
"We've got a starting rotation that's relentless, and I said that before the series started," Verlander said Monday. "Every guy has their unique ability to shut down a team in their own way. Me, Anibal and Max are all power guys, and then Doug very sneakily can shut you down. I've seen him strike out nine guys in a row. I'm just one of the four guys right now."
Verlander's invincible veneer took a few dings this season when his ERA spiked from 2.64 to 3.46 and manager Jim Leyland chose Scherzer to start the opener of the division series against Oakland. Verlander has discounted speculation that health or accumulated wear-and-tear were factors in his drop-off. Instead, he cites a series of mechanical adjustments that didn't begin to feel natural until September.
"We're not robots," Verlander said. "We're athletes. When you look at the back of Hall of Famers' bubble-gum cards, there are seasons that are down. It's just the way this game is. It was a grind for me all year. I could probably sit here and name 50 adjustments that I tried to make that didn't quite work or did help. Who knows what helped along the way and what didn't?"
Unquestionably, Verlander is peaking at the right time, In the Oakland series, he joined Sandy Koufax as the second pitcher in history with 10 or more strikeouts and no runs allowed in back-to-back postseason games. During a 3-0 victory in the series clincher, Verlander generated 24 swings-and-misses overall and 18 swings-and-misses with his fastball. Those totals matched his single-game highs since 2008.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Verlander threw 12 of 17 changeups for strikes on his way to limiting Oakland's lefty hitters to a 1-for-20 night. Take note, Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury.
If the Red Sox plan to disrupt Verlander's excellent postseason adventure, they might want to consider a more aggressive approach than they took against Sanchez and Scherzer. Of the 68 Boston hitters to come to the plate in the first two games of the series, 28 took a pitch for a ball to begin their at-bat and 25 took a called strike. The Red Sox spent a lot of time with the bat on their shoulders, allowing the Detroit staff to dictate the course of events.
Do the Sox continue to grind out deep at-bats with the knowledge that the vast majority are going to end in strikeouts, because that approach will help run up Verlander's pitch count and give them a chance to mount an offense against Benoit and the pen? Or do they simply hack at the first good offering they see, regardless of where it comes in the sequence?
Yes, Detroit's bullpen is a potential source of concern, but the Tigers' starting pitching might be dominant enough to carry the day regardless. In 2001, Arizona's Byung-Hyun Kim blew back-to-back World Series games at Yankee Stadium and turned into an emotional wreck, and the Diamondbacks survived because of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. We're not anywhere close to that point yet, but it's a historical precedent that might be worth keeping in mind.
Does the venerable Leyland feel just a little more comfortable knowing that he's sending a six-time All-Star, former MVP and Cy Young Award winner to the mound in such a pivotal game?
"It's always nice to have Justin Verlander on the mound, no matter what the situation is," Leyland said.
The Tigers walked off the field with an empty feeling Sunday. Two days later, they're invigorated by an opportunity to regain control of the series behind their long-time ace. Justin Verlander is an athlete, not a robot. But sometimes it sure feels that way.
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