DETROIT – The most impressive thing about Justin Verlander on Tuesday night? He wasn't that impressive. He wasn't in his Cy Young, MVP, no-hitter form. He wasn't hitting his spots with his high-90s heater, piling up the strikeouts and playing with people. He lost his rhythm and fell behind hitters. He had to battle.
Still, he carried a two-hit shutout into the ninth, extending his postseason shutout innings streak to 23. He prompted this tweet from Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, which apparently had nothing to do with Kate Upton: "Verlander is incredible. I'm in awe of his talent. If I could do it all over again, he's the pitcher I'd want to be."
And though he allowed a late home run and had to agonize in the dugout like the rest of Detroit – jumping up and down at a close-call ball, rubbing somebody's bald head for luck while Phil Coke closed it out – he was the one who led the Tigers to their 2-1 victory. They are one win away from sweeping the New York Yankees and going to the World Series.
"That's just a credit to how good his stuff is," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "You can't teach that. You're born with it. It shows you how hard it is to hit a baseball. As a hitter, when you're up 2-0, you're feeling pretty good. But sometimes 98 on the plate is still tough to hit."
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Verlander is now 3-0 with a 0.74 earned-run average this postseason. Opponents are hitting .122 against him. One more scoreless inning Tuesday night, and those numbers would have been even better. He would have become the ninth pitcher – and the first since Josh Beckett in 2003 – to throw two shutouts in one postseason.
When Verlander is on, he is must-see, keep-quiet, don't-jinx it TV. He could throw a no-no, as he has done twice in his career, or could come close. Thing is, when he is a little off, he can still be more on than most.
"Every time he goes out there," Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said, "he's got a chance to win the game."
Avila said Verlander's goal is always the same – no hits, no runs, nine innings. Verlander said his game plan was the same as always Tuesday night – get ahead in the count, stay aggressive, don't let 'em score.
Everything went fine for three innings – nine up, nine down – and then, Verlander said, "that approach kind of went out the window in the fourth." He started jumping toward the plate. He started losing command. He started falling behind in counts 1-0 and 2-0 and 3-1.
"He got a little bit out of sync, but he's so good, he can still get people out when he's out of sync," Jones said "Somebody else might not be able to do that. He can do that."
Verlander struck out only three Tuesday night. But for all his command issues, he walked none. When he got into trouble, he basically threw the ball down the middle, daring the Yankees to hit it.
They couldn't. They can't hit anything right now. Derek Jeter is injured, and Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher are so hopeless they were replaced in the lineup by Brett Gardner and Eric Chavez, and Robinson Cano is in an epic funk.
"I will say – and he'll probably say – he got away with some pitches," Avila said. "But when you throw as hard as he does, you can get away with some things. I mean, his stuff was still great. Don't get me wrong. He had great stuff today. Just fell behind a lot of hitters."
"You don't have to strike everybody out to get outs," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "You can make them mis-hit the ball now and then. That's OK, too."
Leyland was so confident in Verlander – and so shaken by Jose Valverde, who has blown ninth-inning leads in his last two appearances – he let his ace play the closer. To start the ninth, the right-hander got ahead of Eduardo Nunez, 2-0, only to watch him hang in there – taking two balls, fouling off four pitches – and drive a hanging breaking ball just over the left-field wall.
"That might be the first right-hander to hit a home run off his breaking ball this year," Avila said. "That's the first, to my recollection."
The manager came out to the mound. He asked the ace if he could get one more out. Verlander said absolutely. He got his man, brought his pitch count up to a hefty 132 and walked off to cheers before he would have faced Ichiro Suzuki, who had singled off him twice earlier.
"Normally, I guess you don't take Secretariat out in the final furlong, but that was pretty much it for him," Leyland said. "I was not going to let him face Ichiro."
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The Yankees put two men on. Suddenly, it looked like Leyland had pulled his closer too early this time. But Coke got October hero Raul Ibanez with a gutsy slider to end the game, and Verlander could finally exhale.
"Being up 2-0 [in the series], people asked me if I was comfortable," Verlander said. "I said no, because you have to treat this as a must-win. You have to keep momentum on your side."
Even when you're a little off.
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