Commentary

Sure thing? There's no such thing

Verlander might have upper hand on Sabathia if not for one factor: Baseball is crazy

Updated: September 30, 2011, 5:21 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Detroit's Cy Young Award-winner-to-be, Justin Verlander, has been the best pitcher in baseball this year. But after the glass-breaking, plate-crashing, cork-popping, heart-pounding end to baseball's pennant races Wednesday night, there was a very good reason Tigers manager Jim Leyland could be found less than 18 hours later, rumbling in his three-packs-a-day smoker's voice that he doesn't know what to make of who's hot and who's not anymore.

Verlander is supposed to have the edge in the American League Division Series opener against the New York Yankees and their ace, CC Sabathia, on Friday night in the Bronx. But if what happened to Boston and Atlanta, Tampa and St. Louis in the past 24 hours underscored anything about baseball, it's that the sure thing doesn't necessarily prevail, nothing is chalk, form doesn't always hold fast and sometimes the million-to-1 shot actually does come in. Pressure distorts everything. Hits happen.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireCC Sabathia hasn't won a start in nearly a month. But he does have a 7-4 playoff record and a ring.

Or, as Leyland put it during his news conference at Yankee Stadium, "The blood is flowing a little bit different all of a sudden."

It's not often that Sabathia takes the mound clearly looking like the second-best starter in the game, as he will against Verlander. But you kinda sorta might wanna tune in to their classic matchup anyway.

Sabathia is a proven playoff war horse. Verlander leads all of Major League Baseball in wins (24), strikeouts (250), innings pitched (251) and WHIP (0.92), and he threw a no-hitter this year. His 2.40 ERA is tops in the AL.

No wonder that when Derek Jeter was asked what it's like to face Verlander, the Yankees shortstop said, "Where do you want to start? He throws 100 [mph], he's got a great curveball, he's got control."

"But hey, 100 is 100 -- we've seen it before," Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said with a shrug. "Everybody is going to be [excited]. So he may throw 100 mph. But what if he can't throw it over the plate?"

Succumbing to emotions was one of the old knocks on Verlander. He's always had absolutely great stuff, but he sometimes can be as high-strung as a thoroughbred getting loaded into the starting gate after a firecracker goes off. And Thursday, Verlander sort of confessed to that trait -- then added that he thinks it's in the past.

"I'm a totally different pitcher now as opposed to back then," said Verlander, who also threw a no-hitter during his rookie season of 2006 and looked like baseball's next big thing, only to go 1-2 with a 5.83 ERA that postseason. "Just being a rookie and wide-eyed, and first experience in Major League Baseball, first experience in the postseason -- it was quite an experience for me.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander is in the playoffs for the first time since the Tigers went to the 2006 World Series.

"Obviously, I haven't been there as many times as some of the guys in the other clubhouse, but I have been there before. So I'll just kind of draw on those experiences and hopefully be able to calm my nerves a little bit more and use it to my advantage. ... Adrenaline is a good thing if you let it be."

We'll see. Although Sabathia and Verlander gave the usual stock answers about how they're worrying only about the batting orders they have to mow down, not watching how the other is doing in Game 1, it was surprising -- even refreshing -- to hear both speak honestly about the psychological ghosts they're going to have to tamp down.

When asked whether he enjoys these head-to-head showdowns against other teams' aces, Sabathia-- who's had far more experience at it than Verlander -- said, "I wish I could sit here and say, 'Yeah.' But no. Not at all."

Sabathia would never admit that panic will reign, hearts will sink, the Hudson River will start flowing backward and the psychological baggage the Yankees take into Game 2 will grow considerably heavier if he loses Friday. But he knows, like everybody knows, that the Yanks are taking a calculated risk by using a three-man rotation for this best-of-five series, unlike the Tigers. If the Yanks don't end the series by the time Sabathia has pitched in Games 1 and 4, they'll have to rely on rookie 16-game winner Ivan Nova to outduel Verlander in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium. (Nobody's saying, "Blindfold optional.")

Maybe that explains what Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano meant when he said whichever team wins Game 1 "will feel like they're close to winning the series. ... It is important. You can put pressure on the other team."

As fearsome as Verlander's fastball is, what one Yankees hitter after another kept emphasizing Friday is that velocity alone isn't what makes the Tigers right-hander especially tough. He can put hitters away with any of his four pitches and, as Yanks hitting coach Kevin Long says, doesn't seem to fall into any discernible pitch sequences. So good luck guessing what's coming.

The Yanks also could have mentioned Verlander won 12 straight games from July 21 through Sept. 24 to finish with one of the historically great seasons any pitcher has had. Ever. But why torture themselves?

Sabathia has been good but not that red-hot. The Yankees rode him hard the last month of the season, often letting his pitch count climb past 120, 125, even 127 pitches, sometimes in as little as six innings of work.

So, to recap: Verlander is spiking up, up, up. Sabathia's form has been trending slightly down. He failed to win his 20th game his last three times out and often labored to finish off hitters.

But you know what you can do with all that knowledge, don't you, after the crazy past few days baseball has seen?

"No, I don't," Leyland admitted.

Good answer.

And amen.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES