SAN FRANCISCO – On Wednesday, the culprit was his fastball. Here it was, the first game of the World Series and the wretched thing just wouldn't go where Justin Verlander wanted. He tried to throw it high and it wouldn't rise. He tried to throw it across the corner of the plate and instead it drifted to the middle.
Command is what the pitchers call it when they can make a pitch go exactly where they like. Verlander is usually brilliant with his command. It's what makes his blazing fastball usually so impossible to hit. Command is what has made him the most intimidating pitcher in baseball.
After command of his fastball failed him at the worst of times – the first game of the World Series, an 8-3 Detroit loss to the San Francisco Giants – Verlander had one more indignity to suffer. His locker in the Tigers' clubhouse was impossible to reach. He stood in the center of the room and pondered a row of reporters and television cameras about 10 deep waiting for him and sighed.
What to do when you get pounded for five runs in four innings of a game everyone expected you to win and you can't even undress and take a shower? Verlander did something strange for a man who burns with much intensity and hates to lose. He climbed onto a table, gazed down at the mob around his locker, smiled and shouted, "What are you guys all waiting for?"
As if he didn't know.
Then the most intimidating pitcher in baseball squeezed through the throng. He walked to his locker and talked about the fastball that betrayed him. He said he struggled to find it the whole game. He said he was frustrated at his command. He said the Giants kept smacking enough of his pitches to keep their at-bats alive, forcing him to work harder.
He said he felt "out of synch."
And when he was asked how he could correct this he laughed.
"If I could tell you what it is, I would have fixed it immediately," he said.
This was not Justin Verlander out there on Wednesday. Not the Justin Verlander who vexes the American League with roaring fastballs and biting curves. Not the Justin Verlander who blew through the Oakland Athletics twice and the New York Yankees once this postseason. On Wednesday he was ordinary.
He knew it too. Knew it from the moment he started warming up and his command of the fastball was missing. You have to keep fighting, he said, relying on other pitches to carry you through the night. But this is a hard thing to do when you have what might be the best fastball in the American League, and it won't go the places you ask. When the command of the fastball is gone, the slider, curve and changeup suddenly don't look so daunting.
And the Giants hit him. They hit him early when third baseman Pablo Sandoval crushed that high fastball that wasn't high enough for a home run in the first inning. Later, Verlander's catcher, Alex Avila, said the difference between strikeout, popup and home run was just "centimeters." But when things aren't right, when the fastball isn't acting the way you want, a few centimeters can be huge.
Maybe nothing summed up the frustration of Verlander's night better than the third inning. This is when Giants center fielder Angel Pagan fouled off four of five pitches and then hit a little ground ball to third base that looked as if it would be an out until it grazed the base, bounced in the air and rolled into left field for a double.
Verlander said he was telling himself to "reset," when Marco Scutaro followed with an RBI single. Suddenly pitching coach Jeff Jones visited the mound with some mechanical advice. Verlander glared at Jones.
"What are you doing here?" he later said he asked.
Then he said he told Jones, "All you are doing is letting the crowd back into it."
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Right after that, Sandoval hit his second home run off Verlander, making it a 4-0 ballgame. The pitch was good, Verlander was sure of it. Just on the outside of the plate. When Sandoval swung, his victim didn't think the ball was going out. AT&T's dimensions make home runs tough as do its swirling winds and cool air. Long fly balls to left field usually die on nights like Wednesdays.
Only this time it didn't. The long fly ball that should have died in left dropped in the stands. The most intimidating pitcher in baseball watched the home run, then said very clearly, "Wow."
As in: Wow, was that really a home run?
It was that kind of a night for Verlander. Nothing was going right. Not the fastball. Not the ground balls to third. Not the fly balls to left that should have been caught. And this is when you don't have your best stuff. This is when the most intimidating pitcher in baseball becomes just another guy on the mound who can't find a place for his fastball.
Long after the game was over, Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said the team's approach was to "grind" out at-bats, to make Verlander throw pitch after pitch, fouling off balls until the suddenly unreliable fastball went somewhere it could be hit.
"His stuff was unbelievable," Scutaro said.
But Verlander knew otherwise. As did his teammates.
"The whole time we were trying to find his command," Avila said. "We couldn't find it. We tried to mix other pitches in there."
Then he shook his head.
Was it the week-long layoff between the Tigers' sweep of the Yankees in the ALCS and the first game of the World Series? Verlander didn't know. He may never know. All he understood was that on the biggest night of the season the command of his fastball was gone. The Giants hit him hard, and he had to tell dozens of people in front of his locker why it had happened.
Soon the throng left, and another that had been on the periphery but couldn't hear had moved in. Verlander, vanquished in a game he was expected to win, shrugged again.
"OK those who didn't hear before move on in," he said to the reporters who had been left out. He waved his hands in a beckoning motion. Then patiently he tried to explain the inexplicable.
Why his fastball left him on the night he really needed it was the biggest question.
And it's one for which he would never have an answer.
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