KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One inning cost the American League home-field advantage in the World Series. It will be three months before we learn the identity of the lucky/unlucky club. And once that happens — as grown men in swimming goggles spray Champagne after the pennant clincher — we should remember this sequence of events Tuesday night.
The All-Star Game was only five batters old, but Justin Verlander — MVP, Mr. Cy Young, ace among aces — had arrived at a pivotal moment: The National League led, 1-0, and had a runner on second with two out. Carlos Beltran was the hitter. The count ran full, and Beltran took a mighty hack at one of Verlander’s famous heaters. Foul ball.
It wasn’t terribly exciting, other than what the Kauffman Stadium scoreboard told the sellout crowd of 40,933.
Then Verlander heard a familiar voice.
“VER!” Prince Fielder, his Detroit Tigers teammate, hollered from first base. “101!”
Understand this about Verlander: He is, at 29, mellower than in his younger days — on the mound, at least. He usually throws in the low 90s during the early innings. That allows him to establish a consistent delivery — the foundation from which he later ascends to 97, 98, 99 and, yes, 100. The method is rare, but it has helped Verlander become the best pitcher in baseball.
Well, Verlander didn’t use it Tuesday. He didn’t even try. Basically, he had it in his mind that folks in the ballpark — and those watching around the world — wanted to see him throw the baseball as hard as he possibly could. And when that sort of notion germinates in the brain of Justin Brooks Verlander, it brings about a collision of machismo and talent more combustible than July fireworks.
“The next pitch, of course, was a ball — but it was 101,” Verlander said. “I looked at him, like, ‘See? I told you.'”
To which I say: Good for him.
Point proved. Entertainment delivered. The problem, of course, was that Beltran walked. And once Buster Posey walked . . . and Pablo Sandoval tripled . . . and Dan Uggla singled . . . well, the NL was ahead 5-0 en route to an 8-0 blowout.
Verlander is one of the most competitive people in baseball. He dissects spring training starts and chastises himself after wins. I’ve never heard him say, “That hitter is better than me.” I doubt I ever will.
Yet, Tuesday night, he offered this:
“Obviously, I don’t want to give up runs. I know it means something, but we’re here for the fans. And I know the fans don’t want to see me throw 90 and try to hit the corners. Just let it eat.”
“I was able to laugh about it right away.”
“Hey, I had fun.”
This, from a man whose final line included five earned runs on four hits — in one inning. He took the loss, too.
Make no mistake: Verlander cared. His attitude was cavalier, not careless. This is the same guy who starts each game with the idea that he’s going to throw a no-hitter. Tuesday was closer to an all-hitter. Verlander couldn’t locate his fastball, which would have been a problem if he were starting the Appalachian League All-Star Game. This was the all-grunt, no-guile Verlander — the one frequently on display during the 2008 season — which, not coincidentally, was his worst in the big leagues.
“That’s why I don’t try to throw a hundred in the first inning,” Verlander said, grinning. “It doesn’t usually work out too well for me.”
I’ve heard Verlander rationalize after poor starts. That wasn’t the case Tuesday. If anything, his postgame remarks showed that he understands the principle of the All-Star Game. It is meant to showcase the best talents in baseball. It is meant to delight fans, in the stadium and at home. It is meant to humanize stars we see fleetingly the rest of the season.
When he pitches for the Tigers, Verlander’s job is to win. Tuesday, his job was to entertain. And he did that, as much as any pitcher could while saddling his AL teammates with what proved to be an insurmountable deficit.
“You know what? I wasn’t expecting that hard,” said NL leadoff man Carlos Gonzalez, whom Verlander struck out to begin the game. “He just fired bullets to me, then a really nasty curveball. I was like, ‘All right, he got me with the best stuff.’ I was ready to walk back to the dugout.”
The All-Star Game counts. It has for a decade. Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington — now 0-4 in All-Star and World Series play — is well aware of that. But the greater obligation is to the show itself. If commissioner Bud Selig wants the game to determine home-field advantage for the World Series — and he does — then it will be so. The World Series tie-in is an aftereffect of the game, not its purpose. There is a distinction, and it’s one that Verlander — and many players — grasp in full.
“Usually he’s throwing that 91, spotting up, when we’re facing him in the regular season,” said Texas Rangers catcher Mike Napoli, who received Verlander’s 35 pitches (19 strikes). “He kind of made a comment to me: ‘People didn’t come here to see 91.’ He was just letting it go.”
It wasn’t as if Verlander’s AL teammates took issue with his approach — even if the loss may hurt their chances at a world championship. “That’s obviously not who he is,” White Sox slugger Adam Dunn said. “You throw that (start) out the window. He didn’t have his location. That was it. You won’t see that again as long as he pitches.”
Rangers closer Joe Nathan, who saw Verlander frequently while playing for the Twins, saw shades of the younger Verlander — the one who sometimes fell victim to overthrowing in big starts. “He started out throwing that hard, and when he got into a little trouble it’s not like he could throw harder,” Nathan said. “He was already bringing what he had, and it was hard for him to get out of that spot.”
Yet, he was one pitch away from escaping the first inning with only a 1-0 deficit. Remember the Beltran at-bat: The count was 3-2, when Fielder — the previous night’s Home Run Derby showman — egged Verlander into an attempt at short-circuiting the Kauffman Stadium radar gun. He missed. The rally was on. The World Series will begin in an NL park for the third consecutive autumn.