Verlander still in Cy Young form
To say the Boston Red Sox needed to win their season opener is absurd. But let’s be honest: It would have been nice.
Thursday was their first meaningful game since the completion of their faceplant in Baltimore last Sept. 28. Because it’s Boston, a 1-0 record might have softened the talk-show tenor, from “we’re doomed” to “we’re probably doomed.”
Instead, they are 0-1. The deciding run in Detroit’s 3-2 triumph came when Austin Jackson bounced a single down the left field line, following a curious bullpen maneuver by the already-under-fire Bobby Valentine. Game 1 in 2012 was a walk-off loss, just like Game 162 in 2011.
But as much as Red Sox fans want to blame Valentine or Mark Melancon or Alfredo Aceves — all culpable, to varying degrees — Boston lost this game long before the ninth.
The decisive moment came when Justin Verlander arrived at Comerica Park, ready to pitch.
“We saw the best pitcher in baseball,” Red Sox star Dustin Pedroia said.
In case anyone had forgotten why he’s such a popular video-game pitchman, Verlander offered a convenient reminder before 45,027 witnesses and a national television audience.
He twirled eight shutout innings, allowing only a David Ortiz double and Ryan Sweeney single. He registered seven strikeouts, many of them overwhelming. Perhaps most impressively, he pitched in shirtsleeves on a 43-degree afternoon. He didn’t get the victory — Jose Valverde, 49-for-49 last year, blew the save — but that hardly diminished the impression Verlander left on a lineup that led the majors in runs scored last year.
Verlander doesn’t merely get outs. He makes hitters question if they went into the proper line of work. His curveball might be the best pitch, by the best pitcher, in baseball today. He used a particularly savage one to end the second inning with a frozen strikeout of veteran Cody Ross.
Ross saw the ball rise out of Verlander’s hand and figured it would stay up in the zone. It didn’t. By the time the ball bent downward, it was too late. Ross started peeling off his batting helmet and gloves before home plate umpire Dale Scott rang him up. “I knew,” Ross said later.
Watching from left field, Delmon Young could empathize. Young went 6-for-30 against Verlander — with 10 punchouts — before the Tigers acquired him from Minnesota last July.
“I’ve had a few of those,” Young said, laughing. “You know about halfway that you’re done.”
Nearly every Red Sox hitter experienced the same feeling Thursday. Among the starting lineup, only Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury — Verlander’s chief competition for the MVP last year — escaped sans strikeout.
Ortiz drove in a run with a sacrifice fly off Valverde, but his greatest hitting feat might have been fighting off Verlander’s curve with a desperate swing to prolong an at-bat. “This guy’s not making mistakes out there,” Ortiz said.
Verlander is coming off a season in which he became the first starting pitcher in a quarter-century to win the MVP and Cy Young awards in the same year. We’re tempted to declare that he can’t possibly be that good again. But how do we know that?
For one day, at least, 2012 looked a lot like 2011. The sellout crowd thought so, chanting “M-V-P!” as Verlander walked toward the dugout after the last of his 105 pitches. Verlander is known for adding velocity and life to his fastball as games wear on. Why can’t he do the same within his career? He’s only 29, near the start of what should be a very long prime.
“The way he’s evolved into a pitcher, the power that he has, and the intensity he has as a competitor — those three things combined make him pretty tough,” observed Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure. “He’s learned how to control the throttle.”
Young said Verlander belongs in a class with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum — pitchers who have had award-winning seasons and found ways to get better the next year. “He might not have the same amount of wins or strikeouts,” Young said, “but eight innings, two hits, against that lineup?”
Ross, a career National Leaguer save six games with Detroit in 2003, thought back on more than 2,600 plate appearances and came up with only Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw as a contemporary comparison for Verlander. “They’re similar,” Ross said. “I was thinking when I was out there, ‘This reminds me of Kershaw.’ He locates everything. Kershaw has a little cutter. Verlander has a slider. Both of them have extra gas in the tank when they get in trouble.”
Verlander rarely needed that fuel reserve Thursday. The Red Sox, for all their flaws, are a nuisance to most pitchers in baseball. But Justin Verlander isn’t most pitchers. He’s the best.