Verlander finally pitching like playoffs ace

DETROIT — Justin Verlander on Monday was asked about pursuing the Holy Grail of baseball and succeeding in all three rounds of the playoffs along the lines of past postseason pitching standouts, such as Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling.

“Obviously, that’s a goal of mine, to help pitch our team to a World Series championship,” said Verlander, who will start Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night at Comerica Park. The Tigers lead the New York Yankees two games to none in the series.

Verlander is off to a nearly flawless start in the playoffs. He hasn’t allowed a run since Coco Crisp’s leadoff homer in Game 1 of the AL Division Series, and was 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA against the Oakland A’s.

It’s been quite a departure for Verlander, who was 3-3 with a 5.40 ERA in eight postseason starts — as a rookie in 2006 and as the AL’s MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 2011 — before this year.

Verlander going from disappointing to devastating in the postseason could very well be the key to whether or not the Tigers finish off the Yankees and go on to win their first World Series since 1984.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland and catcher Alex Avila were asked what has enabled Verlander to finally exhibit his regular-season dominance in this playoff run.

“It’s maturity,” Leyland said. “He’s learned to caress the pressure. There’s a lot to be said about being a horse, but it’s hard to be a horse mentally.

“A lot of this is how you handle things mentally, and he’s grown leaps and bounds there. He’s better because of experience.”

Verlander’s complete game, 6-0, shutout of the A’s in Game 5 at Oakland was his first victory in a series clincher. He’s elevated his game by striking out 22 in 16 innings and allowing just seven hits and five walks.

“He’s always had the same type of mentality, the same demeanor, the same preparation,” said Avila, who caught both of Verlander’s ALDS games against the A’s and his 2011 no-hitter against the Blue Jays. “I don’t know any way to pinpoint what’s made him more dominant this postseason. I guess it’s just execution.”

Avila believes that execution is sharper for Verlander and the other starters because Detroit had to overtake the Chicago White Sox in the final weeks. They cruised into the postseason by putting away the Central Division early in 2011.

“Every game was a must-win for us,” Avila said. “Last year, we had three weeks when the games did not mean as much.

“This affects the psyche of the pitchers and the team. Justin just has better command of his pitches.”

Verlander, 29, said the 2006 playoffs were a “whirlwind” that he doesn’t “remember much about.” He went 17-9 and was named the AL Rookie of the Year, but was gassed after his first full season.

That prompted him to ramp up his postseason conditioning program — particularly in the core area — which now allows him to exceed 125 pitches in outings without hitting a wall.

Verlander remembers taking the mound at old Yankee Stadium in his first postseason outing as a “surreal” experience, but nine postseason starts since have made a huge difference in having and applying his gifts.

“I still have the angst, nervousness and pregame jitters,” Verlander said. “I’m able to rein it in to my advantage now. Getting big games under your belt helps you in that situation.”

Verlander has stepped up in every way. He’s taking the lead on important team issues; mentoring the other pitchers, much like Kenny Rogers did with him; and even giving away free tickets to fans via his Twitter account, @JustinVerlander.

When asked about buffering the possible negative fan reaction closer-on-hold Jose Valverde might receive at Comerica after posting a 27.00 ERA in three 2012 playoff appearances, Verlander said:

“I’d like to see no negative reaction. You buy the right to cheer and you buy the right to boo. But after Coco Crisp drops the ball here (in Game 2), I thought he might get booed (in Oakland). But he got cheered. I’d like to see that from our fans.”

Some who will be there as Verlander’s guests. He’s presenting two tickets per game to fans showing outstanding Detroit pride via Twitter on the hashtag #DETROITpride.

“It’s nice to be able to get fans out to the stadium who probably wouldn’t have the chance otherwise,” Verlander said.

During games he’s not pitching, Verlander is one of the most visible Tigers in the dugout. He’s leaning on the railing, picking up tips to pass along and talking to his teammates.

The starting pitchers have a close bond as a result of his leadership, and they also have a 0.94 ERA in the postseason.

“We’re an easy-going group, and we don’t put too much pressure on each other,” Verlander said of fellow starters Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. “Pitching, like hitting, is contagious.

“And that’s what we’re feeding on. It’s easier knowing that the guy going next is throwing real well, too.

“Runs are scarce, and it’s nice to see us get rolling as a group. And, hopefully, we can keep that rolling in the postseason.”