October 23, 2012
Justin Verlander tasked with stopping red-hot GiantsTigers ace a lot better and more mature since 2006 World Series
By KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency
SAN FRANCISCO - If you like baseball stripped to its essentials, this is as raw as it gets. Hello, irresistible force. Meet the immovable object.
The irresistible force is the San Francisco Giants, winners of six elimination games in a row, who steamrolled the St. Louis Cardinals with three victories in a line after spotting them a 3-1 National League Championship Series lead, outscoring the Cards 20-1 in the process. They did not just win the NL pennant. They devoured it.
The immovable object is Detroit's all-world pitcher, Justin Verlander. He has pitched three games in these playoffs, all victories, working a total of 24.1 innings, allowed 11 hits, five walks and two earned runs, while striking out 25. In those three games, he faced 87 batters, just 14 over the limit. He's working on eight days of rest Wednesday night in Game 1 of the World Series.
If anyone is going to turn the tide of momentum that has built for the Giants, it has to be Verlander. The Tigers must win at least one game in San Francisco and this is likely the only one Verlander will pitch at AT&T Park. Unless there is rain late in the Series, Verlander will pitch games one and five and not again.
It was Verlander who doused the red-hot Oakland Athletics with cold water in Game 5 of the ALDS two weeks ago, pitching a four-hit, complete-game shutout, silencing both the Oakland bats and the rabid crowd said to be the loudest assemblage in these playoffs.
Now he gets a chance to hit the mute button a few miles across San Francisco Bay against a Giants team that has whipped its fans into a frenzy.
The memory of 2006 when the Tigers were thrashed in five games by the Cardinals in their only World Series appearance since 1984, is burned into Verlander's memory.
"There were so many emotions that we went through," he said. "It wasn't an embarrassment but it was so disappointing. We just didn't play well. The errors sucked. Everything sucked.
"Now we have more respect for what it means to get here and how tough it is to accomplish. It's a completely different feeling."
Verlander is six years older now and that's six years of maturity for a young pitcher who once had trouble harnessing his emotions, as well as his hunger to throw harder and harder, not smarter and smarter.
"Fast-forward six years, and it's a little bit different," said Verlander. "There's still the angst and the nervousness and the pregame jitters. But I've pitched in some big games now and I understand what my body and mind will be going through. I'm able to rein it in a little bit more and use it to my advantage rather than have it be detrimental to me."
Even as recently as three years ago, Verlander threw his fastball about 70% of the time. Now it's closer to 50%, with a better mixture of changeups, sliders and that lethal curve.
"Early in his career, his off-speed stuff wasn't as developed," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "He didn't throw the slider and his changeup was still a work in progress. That's what got him into high pitch counts early in games. He came to realize, 'I can get quick outs using off-speed pitches,' and that allowed him to go deeper into games. He's evolved from a guy who has great stuff into a guy who has great stuff and can pitch."
While he may be more selective about cranking up the heat, Verlander is still a bit of a freak. He can pitch at 93-94-95 for an entire game, then take it to a new level, hitting triple digits on the radar gun under stress in a ninth inning.
For the third time in the Past four years, Verlander threw the most pitches (3,768) in MLB, a tribute to his strength, perseverance and his unique physiology.
"I would say mostly it is natural," said Verlander. "I have been able to do that ever since I can remember, ever since I stepped on the mound. But I think you can help to build your natural ability, you know. I think a lot of the work I do in the off-season in my lower half and my core allows me to stay strong throughout the game so that I don't start to break down when I get to 100 pitches, that I am actually getting stronger."
There are but a handful of true aces in baseball. Verlander, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, maybe a few more still refining their craft. To be in that league you have to not only be talented and strong but you have to want the ball under the hottest spotlight.
"There's a lot to be said for being a horse," Leyland said. "But it's hard to be a horse, because the expectations are so high. Justin has matured so much as a pitcher. He's figured out different ways to get people out without overexerting himself, but he still has something left in the tank if he needs it. I think a lot of it is how you handle this stuff mentally. He has grown by leaps and bounds in that area."
He has pitched some big games already this year, but perhaps none bigger than the one he will pitch Wednesday.
"I've waited my whole life for this," said Verlander. "You look at a guy like Derek Jeter who has done it for so long and won so many championships.
"Well, I want to get to that level. I don't think anybody's goal is to be mediocre. I think everybody should want to be the best. I want to be the best at everything I do. I want to be in the Hall of Fame one day."
Games like this one are the kind that get Cooperstown's attention.