DETROIT — Don’t think that a player as competitive as Justin Verlander doesn’t know what his postseason record is or what the expectations are of him.
In eight postseason starts, Verlander was 3-3 with a 5.57 ERA. Not very Cy Young or MVP-like, even when you consider those first four starts came when he was a rookie in 2006 and he was — in his words — “gassed” at that point.
Things are different now. Verlander is an established veteran at 29, considered to be one of the best, if not the best, pitchers in the game today.
Yet the only thing missing from his stellar resume is playoff success, or more preferably, playoff dominance. Verlander took a big step in that direction Saturday.
The Detroit Tigers ace came into this short American League Division Series against the Oakland A’s knowing that it was his job to set the tone, to put his team ahead.
It wasn’t a promising beginning as Oakland’s Coco Crisp led off the game with a home run and the A’s forced Verlander to throw 26 pitches in the first inning.
But despite some control issues early on and an elevated pitch count in the first few innings, Verlander did exactly what he was expected to do — lead his team to a 3-1 victory in Game 1 at Comerica Park in front of a sellout crowd of 43,323.
“Obviously, in the postseason you don’t go out there and think about pitch count,” Verlander said. “You just think about getting as many outs as you can and not letting guys score.”
Manager Jim Leyland said Verlander’s command might have suffered because he was not in his regular routine.
“I really think the big thing is this was his seventh day, and I think it took him a while to get back in sync,” Leyland said. “But as the game went on, he started to get his command real good and, obviously, pitched a fantastic game.”
After Cliff Pennington’s base hit leading off the fifth, Verlander retired eight straight batters, six via strikeout, including five in a row from the sixth through the first two outs in the seventh.
He said he was able to be even more aggressive when his catcher, Alex Avila, hit a home run in the fifth to provide a two-run lead.
“That’s kind of the groove I’ve been working to find the whole day,” Verlander said. “But that extra run really helped, too. Gives you a bit of added confidence going out there knowing one solo homer doesn’t beat you or tie the game.”
Verlander finished with 11 strikeouts, becoming the first pitcher in Tigers history to have multiple games with 10 or more strikeouts in the postseason.
“The first few innings, he was a little wild,” Avila said. “He was having some command issues, kind of uncharacteristic for him. He was able to get in a nice rhythm there, especially in the middle innings.
“Once we got the lead, he did an unbelievable job. Eleven strikeouts is pretty damn good.”
The A’s batters led the league in strikeouts during the regular season, but made up for it with plenty of home runs.
Verlander led the league in strikeouts with 239 in the regular season, the second straight season he has done so.
A’s first baseman Brandon Moss had three of the 11 strikeouts against Verlander.
“We went out there and really battled him, but he’s a great pitcher,” Moss said. “You want to tip your hat to him, but then you realize that everyone is always tipping their hats to him.
“It’s impossible to have a plan against him, because he’s got so many pitches and he can throw all of them at any time.”
Even in the seventh inning, when he was well over 100 pitches, Verlander did what he normally does, which is continue to throw 99 mph while mixing in a 79 mph curveball or 84 mph change up.
“He gets stronger as the game goes on,” Avila said. “He had a great fastball today, really explosive. His command wasn’t as good as it normally is but his stuff’s so explosive.”
Verlander is one of the main reasons that pundits, both national and local, picked the Tigers to win this series against the inexperienced A’s.
If the amazingly resilient A’s make one of their patented comebacks and there’s a deciding Game 5 in Oakland, Verlander will be back on the mound.
And as Verlander showed Saturday night, he’ll be ready.