Justin Verlander watches Albert Pujols homer in Game 1 of the '06 World Series. (AP)SAN FRANCISCO — Faced with another long layoff between the ALCS and World Series, Detroit Tigers fans are hoping this year's squad gets past the down time a lot better than the 2006 team did.
That includes a better effort in Game 1 from Justin Verlander, too. Time has flattened the memory, but the Tigers ace also started the first game of the 2006 World Series and was blown up by the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7-2 defeat at Comerica Park. Verlander gave up homers to Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen while surrendering six earned runs in five innings of work. He pitched better in Game 5, giving up one earned run over six innings, but still took the loss as Jeff Weaver and the Cardinals clinched the title.
Things were obviously a bit different then, of course. Verlander was a skinny 23-year-old coming off a 17-9 mark in his first full season in the majors and Kate Upton was just entering high school as a 14-year-old.
But Verlander said during Tuesday's media sessions that he was looking forward to moving past that disappointment with the second World Series Game 1 start of his career.
"It was my rookie year and everything was kind of a whirlwind," Verlander said at AT&T Park. "I don't think I really appreciated the magnitude of how hard it is to get there.
"I think I had a rude awakening in the years after that, and I think it allows me to appreciate it all the more that I'm here now and getting the opportunity to start Game 1 again. "
Verlander posted a 1-2 record and 5.82 ERA over four postseason starts in 2006 and he was asked on Tuesday if he ever allowed himself to think that he might have missed his one great chance to win a ring. Superstars like Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, after all, reached the World Series early in their careers only to either struggle or fail to return before retiring many years later.
"Yes and no," Verlander said in response. " I realized how lucky I was to get there in 2006 after a couple more seasons; especially after 2008, you know, I realized how tough it was, but I also knew at the same time that I ... hopefully had many more years to go. If I had a lengthy career, obviously, I would have some more opportunities. So I wasn't worried that I'd never get back, but I realized how difficult it was looking back at it."
For what it's worth, Verlander has actually made it look rather easy this time around. He's 3-0 this postseason with 25 strikeouts, five walks and just two runs over 24 1/3 innings. His ERA stands at a paper-thin 0.74 as he heads into Wednesday night's matchup against Barry Zito.
Verlander is not the same pitcher he was in 2006, nor should anyone expect him to dwell on those disappointing losses. Six seasons that included five All-Star teams, a Cy Young (and possibly two) and an MVP award have a way of building confidence.
Still, those experiences are part of what Justin Verlander is today.
"The only way to learn how your body is going to respond to these situations is having been in them before," he said. "I think that's what has made it easier for me this postseason thus far to draw on some of my past experiences pitching in the postseason and some big games, to just allow me to be a little bit more at ease out there."