Justin Verlander has accomplished just about everything to which a pitcher might aspire: a Rookie of the Year award, a no-hitter, another no-hitter, a Cy Young, an MVP.
Last Thursday in Oakland — as he bounced off the mound after the last out of his nine-inning, series-clinching masterpiece — his father noticed something different.
“He was giddy,” Richard Verlander said Tuesday. “I could hear him in the stands. I went back and watched the replay, and you could hear him screaming. This was total, unfettered joy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that elated after a game on a baseball field. And I think that’s because it was more than an individual thing.
“He was happy for the Tigers.”
Justin Verlander gets it now. Maybe he did before. But he really gets it now. He knows that no-hitters and banquets are nice, but that championships are forever. And he’s pitching like he can smell the champagne before everyone else.
In his first two postseasons — stymied by inexperience in 2006 and adverse weather in 2011 — he went 3-3 with a 5.57 ERA.
After another sublime performance in Tuesday’s 2-1 triumph over the Yankees, he’s 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA in this one. The first half of this October has belonged to him, more than any other player in the sport.
The Tigers have a 3-0 lead in the American League Championship Series. The pennant is one win away. Their first World Series championship since 1984 — the year Verlander turned 1 — looms four victories after that. And it all seems so attainable, because in their 29-year-old ace they have nine lockdown innings waiting to happen.
It speaks to Verlander’s dominance that he has needed only three games to become the central figure of this postseason. He was mildly critical of himself after Tuesday’s start — “I was behind everybody and had to throw fastballs almost down the middle” — even though he didn’t permit a run until his 124th pitch, on a solo homer by Eduardo Nuñez. He wore shirtsleeves on a drizzly night when the temperature dropped below 50 degrees. Like I said: The guy is an ace.
His poise, his pace, his gallops to the mound before each inning — they are the same in October as they were in April. It has taken Verlander seven full seasons to become this at ease, with the stage and with himself. Now it’s a matter of muscle memory, as natural for him as casting 98-mph fireballs in the ninth inning.
“He’s been there before — I don’t think there’s any substitute for that,” Richard Verlander said. “It’s having some postseason experience. He got to start two games in the World Series as a rookie. The last couple years, he had issues with the rain.
“He’s evolved. He really seems to have his emotions under control. It’s almost as if there’s a certain look he gets like, ‘Not tonight, guys.’ He really had that in Oakland — ‘Not today. You’re not going to beat me.’ ”
The Tigers see it, too. They understand what Verlander demands of himself, and they know he’s capable of delivering.
“When he’s pitching,” catcher Alex Avila said, “it’s his goal to not give up any runs, any hits and go nine innings.”
Verlander might be the only pitcher in baseball who can make that proclamation with a straight face. He has lived up to it twice. And he comes close enough, often enough, that his teammates must feel unbeatable when he takes the mound.
“He’s the best pitcher in the game,” said Miguel Cabrera, one of the few Tigers with a World Series ring. “You’ve got to feel good when he pitches. I don’t know how the other team feels. But I feel good.
“To see him in this postseason, it’s like he’s going to do something special every night he pitches. I always tell people, ‘Be ready. He’s going to pitch today. Be ready to see something special.’ ”
Recently, it seems the question with Verlander is not if he will win, but whether he will go nine innings. One has something to do with the other, particularly given the recent struggles of closer Jose Valverde: If Verlander wants the victory, it behooves him to finish the game on his own. He seemed to take that approach in the winner-take-all Game 5 in Oakland, and the result was a 122-pitch shutout.
Tuesday’s Game 3 start unfolded differently, in a way that proved Verlander’s adaptability is unsurpassed among his contemporaries. Against the Yankees — a team that traditionally has run up Verlander’s pitch count — he tied a season low with three strikeouts while using his fastball to induce contact at crucial times. He was sitting on 115 pitches when he peeled off his warm-up jacket and ascended the dugout steps for the ninth, amid a roar of approval from 42,970 towel-waving Detroiters.
Quickly, though, it became apparent that he wouldn’t be on the mound for the final out of this particular game. Nuñez bled him for nine pitches and the solo homer, in what Verlander later called “one of the best at-bats, given the situation, I have ever seen — especially with me on the mound.” Tigers manager Jim Leyland came to the mound. The conversation was brief.
Leyland: Can you get one more out for me?
Satisfied, Leyland returned to the dugout. Verlander recorded the out he promised, on a Brett Gardner ground ball, to finish with 132 pitches — his most since last year’s ALCS against Texas. Verlander received a booming ovation on his familiar walk to the dugout, and then he watched and paced and muttered like just about everyone else at Comerica Park.
It was left up to sous closer Phil Coke, who edgily preserved the victory by fanning Bronx folk hero Raul Ibañez on a bold, full-count slider with the tying and go-ahead runs aboard. Michigan exhaled, and a 20-year-old junior at Old Dominion University texted his father while doing the same.
“This is taking years off my life … Seriously,” read the message from Benjamin Verlander.
Richard Verlander laughed and as he looked at his iPhone again, in the tunnel outside the focused Tigers clubhouse. There was no need to fret anymore. Justin Verlander has October under control.