Verlander's in a class all his own

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 3, 2011

Eight innings. Four runs. Not a complete game. Not a shutout. Not even a quality start.

“I would rather (it) go perfectly, be smooth sailing,” Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander said in his postgame news conference, evoking laughter. “Obviously tonight, that was not the case.”

And yet, Verlander’s performance Monday night was one of his most gallant and memorable, an electric display of both old-school fortitude and pitching virtuosity.

He trailed 1-0 after five pitches, then 2-0 when the first inning was complete. He allowed a two-out, two-strike, two-run double by Brett Gardner that tied the score in the seventh. Yet, he came back out for the eighth, again pitching with the lead thanks to a home run by the Tigers’ Delmon Young, then — gasp — throwing five straight pitches of 100 mph or more to the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez.

Think about that – five straight 100s at a time when Verlander already had surpassed 110 pitches against the Yankees’ meat-grinder lineup. Verlander, according to the radar-gun readings on, actually reached 100 mph a total of 15 times. His outing required such effort, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said afterward that he would not dare bring back his ace for a possible relief appearance in Game 5.

If there is a Game 5.

The Tigers lead the Division Series, two games to one, after their rousing 5-4 victory over the Yankees, a victory that demonstrated their many virtues on a night when their two best hitters, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, went a combined 0-for-6 with two walks.

Three less prominent players — second baseman Ramon Santiago, third baseman Brandon Inge and shortstop Jhonny Peralta — delivered big hits. Young hit his decisive homer in the seventh off vaunted Yankees reliever Rafael Soriano. Closer Jose Valverde pitched his usual eventful ninth but improved to a perfect 50-for-50 in save opportunities this season.

The ballyhooed Verlander vs. CC Sabathia matchup? Well, Verlander did his part, striking out 11. Sabathia, on the other hand, issued six walks, a total that Yankees manager Joe Girardi attributed in part — with some justification — to plate umpire Gerry Davis’ tight strike zone.

Girardi complained about the strike zone on TBS and again in his postgame news conference, but eventually conceded, “You have to fight your way through it.” Sabathia generated only seven swings-and-misses in 106 pitches. His inability to finish hitters was part of the reason he lasted only 5 1/3 innings, too.

Verlander had no such problem, generating 18 swings-and-misses and getting five called third strikes. He remarked afterward that he could not remember a game in which he threw so hard for so long. In fact, Verlander said he threw harder than he would have liked, and predicted that he might be “a little bit sore” Tuesday — though perhaps not as sore as Yankees catcher Russell Martin, who took a 100-mph fastball from Verlander in the ribs.

It’s tempting to say that Verlander is a freak, and to an extent that is true. But none of this happens by accident. Verlander was exhausted the last time he pitched in the postseason, at the end of his rookie season in 2006. The experience, he says now, “changed my career,” demonstrating to him just how diligently he needed to train to become an elite pitcher.

He is every bit of that now, and not simply because he throws hard. A rival scout said the thing that impressed him most about Verlander on Monday night was the pitcher’s changeup location to left-handed hitters and the two different velocities on his breaking balls.

Verlander’s most impressive stretch was a run in which he struck out four straight hitters and six of eight. Only one of the strikeouts was on a fastball. Three were on curveballs, one on a changeup, one on a 92-mph sinker.

To think, the way the game started, it appeared that Verlander might not last long at all. Verlander allowed a leadoff single by Derek Jeter, then an RBI triple by Curtis Granderson on a 97-mph fastball. The Yankees’ early aggressiveness impressed Inge. “It was almost like make-or-break, the way they went about it,” he said.

But like Roy Halladay, who rallied after allowing a three-run homer by the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman in the Phillies’ postseason operner, Verlander quickly found his rhythm, retiring 18 of his next 22 hitters. A complete game seemed within reach when he got ahead of Jorge Posada 0-2 with two outs in the seventh.

And then, well, Verlander got excited, walking Posada, hitting Martin and allowing Gardner’s game-tying double off a 100-mph pitch on 3-2.

“That Posada at-bat, he was rearing back and trying to throw his best stuff,” Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer said. “When you try to go back and get extra, it’s hard to slow back down.”

Leyland said Verlander became “over-amped.” Verlander said he simply lost his rhythm for three hitters. Whatever, he escaped the inning by striking out Jeter with Gardner at second representing the tying run.

Verlander’s only hiccup in the eighth was a walk to Rodriguez on the fifth of his 100-mph lasers. A quicker, better outcome against A-Rod might have allowed Verlander to pitch the ninth. But Leyland said there was no discussion of that, no chance Verlander was going back out after 120 pitches.

He had done enough.

“That’s just stepping up and delivering,” Scherzer said.

As only Justin Verlander can.

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