Grown-up Verlander grinds out a Tigers victory

DETROIT – This was not the near-perfect Justin Verlander(notes).

Not on a Monday night when the weather reflected the season of fall, when the New York Yankees got desperate and then resourceful, when he’d have to carry the ball to the ninth inning if the Detroit Tigers were going to win.

It goes to show you just how far a 101-mph fastball will take a pitcher in October, which is about 59 feet, give or take. The last foot-and-a-half is something like whatever Verlander had going Monday night, whatever carried him to those 120 pitches and the Tigers to the edge of the American League Championship Series with a 5-4 victory.

Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander pumps his fist after recording the last out of the eighth inning in Monday's 5-4 win over the Yankees.
(Getty Images)

He was vulnerable and then he was not. Then he was vulnerable again and manager Jim Leyland sent him out for more, and then he plowed through the middle of the Yankees’ order once again in a dramatic eighth inning.

Sure, it is perhaps easy – or at least within reach – to be great when life is nothing but big fastballs, routine outs and defendable leads.

There’s been plenty of that for Verlander. This was not that.

“I would rather [have it] go perfectly,” he said with a laugh. “Obviously tonight, that was not the case.”

This was Verlander – the 24-game winner, the Cy Young Award winner in waiting – all grown up.

Hits fall. At-bats become sacred. Alex Rodriguez(notes), Robinson Cano(notes), Derek Jeter(notes) and Mark Teixeira(notes) come around in the order, men who’ve been here, on fields just like this and found a way. CC Sabathia(notes) has built a reputation on games such as these, and you trade places with him every inning, so a run isn’t just a run, it’s a means to a championship, or a way out of one.

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It’s a lot to bear when it’s all not going quite right. And the crowd is in your ear, waving those towels, those people wearing your jersey and trying to block out the last 27 years.

The Tigers last won a World Series in 1984, and in the old ballpark down on Michigan Avenue. They last played for one five years ago, when Verlander was a pup. He lost two games in that series against the St. Louis Cardinals, when he was trying to figure out the last foot-and-a-half.

This, again, was not that.

Verlander gave up two runs in the first inning, when the Yankees jumped his fastball. He took a 4-2 lead into the seventh, when the Yankees made that up after there was none on and two out. In between, he was masterful. From the moment of Curtis Granderson’s(notes) run-scoring triple in the first until Brett Gardner’s(notes) two-run double in the seventh, he had nine of his 11 strikeouts. Inside those 22 Yankee plate appearances, four Yankees reached first base and none reached second.

He trucked them with his fastball, which hovered at 98 mph, but had more in it when he asked. He tricked them – and sent them away – with his curveball. He teased them with his changeup. He allowed four runs.

“It just wasn’t quite enough,” Gardner said. “He’s tough, you know?”

Game 3 of this division series contained subplots.

The Delmon Young(notes) home run in the seventh inning that snapped a 4-4 deadlock and ultimately buried the Yankees.

Jose Valverde(notes), dancing to the mound in the ninth, psyching himself for another installment of “It’s over,” turning to the plate dramatically, throwing his first warm-up pitch to the backstop, then wobbling through 19 pitches – the last a fastball past Jeter – to save it.

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The search for A-Rod, who drove in a first-inning run with a weak grounder, who’d summoned the teachings of Phil Jackson the day before, who after 10 at-bats in the series is, well, oh-for-Zen.

The suspended and resumed matchup of Verlander against Sabathia.

Then the final score. And the opportunity to finish off the Yankees on Tuesday night by finishing off A.J. Burnett(notes), the erstwhile big-game pitcher whose only start in the series was ordained by rain.

But, what really mattered here was Verlander, 28 years old, harnessing the time and the place and those last 18 inches.

“It felt good,” said Verlander, who threw 25 pitches in Friday’s aborted Game 1. “I think adrenaline is an amazing thing. I don’t feel like it had any ill effects on me whatsoever. Obviously, the life of my fastball was there pretty much the whole game.”

He threw 15 pitches clocked at 100 mph or better on the stadium gun. Five of them came in a single showdown against Rodriguez. In the eighth inning. On pitches Nos. 112 through 116.

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“Probably, actually, threw harder than I would have liked for most of the game,” he said. “I might be a little bit sore tomorrow.”

A good sore, undoubtedly. The kind that lingers for a day or two. The kind, if Rick Porcello(notes) and the Tigers’ bullpen can hold off the Yankees again, or if Burnett is especially unkempt, would be long gone by Saturday’s opener in the ALCS.

“This,” Verlander said, recalling the postseason of five years ago, “is the first time I’ve been in this situation and felt good. 2006, as a rookie, I was pretty fatigued and worn out at the end of the year, and I kind of look back at that and say that’s what changed my career a little bit, having gone through that. … I’ve worked my tail off since then, and I feel like every year I’ve been ready for this. This is why I work so hard. There’s no point in holding anything back now.”

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Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Oct 4, 2011