DETROIT – In the words of Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, "he had that look," and when Justin Verlander has that look, look out. He can blow you away with his fastball, embarrass you with his slider, buckle your knees with his curve ball. He can rack up the strikeouts and make the best offensive team in baseball struggle to score a single run.
But here's the thing: He can lose, too. He can lose when he makes one mistake, one hitter capitalizes on it, and all the Tigers' high-priced bats provide zero support. He can lose like he did Tuesday, when he left a fastball over the plate to Mike Napoli, a home run gave the Boston Red Sox a 1-0 victory, and the Tigers wasted a second straight masterful performance from a starting pitcher.
The Tigers could be leading the American League Championship Series 3-0. Maybe they should be leading 3-0. After Anibal Sanchez (the AL ERA leader this season) threw six no-hit innings in a 1-0 Game 1 win, Max Scherzer (the presumptive Cy Young winner) threw 5 2/3 no-hit innings in Game 2, and Verlander (a former Cy Young winner and MVP) threw 4 2/3 no-hit innings in Game 3. The Tigers' starters have allowed two runs and six hits in 21 innings. They have struck out 35. What was it the late Earl Weaver once said? Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher?
Yeah, well, listen to Jake Peavy, Boston's starter for Game 4 on Wednesday night: "Starting pitching is a huge part of what decides a game, but it's not the only thing that decides a game." The Red Sox have led for only four out of 27 innings, but they have a 2-1 series lead because the Tigers' bullpen blew it in Game 2, and John Lackey matched Verlander in Game 3.
Sunday night was brutal for Detroit. Scherzer left with a 5-1 lead after seven. Closer Joaquin Benoit allowed a first-pitch, game-tying grand slam to David Ortiz in the eighth – Torii Hunter flipping over the fence into the bullpen, the ball sailing just out of reach, a Boston cop raising his arms in the background. Starter-turned-reliever Rick Porcello allowed the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
Tuesday was worse, more frustrating, if not as dramatic. The Tigers lost Game 2 because of their weakness, the bullpen. They lost it at Fenway Park. The series was still tied. They lost this one because their strengths weren't strong enough, they lost it at home, and they fell behind.
Verlander is Verlander again after struggling, at least in relative terms, during the regular season. He allowed no runs and six hits in 15 innings in the American League Division Series, striking out 21, and shut down the Oakland A's on the road in the decisive Game 5. "If any manager could handpick a guy to start a postseason game you had to win," Peavy said, "I don't see how you don't pick this guy at this point in time."
He had that look again here. He struck out 10 for the sixth time in his postseason career, breaking a record that had been held by the likes of Randy Johnson, Cliff Lee and Bob Gibson. He struck out six straight at one point, an LCS record. "I felt like I had pretty good control of my pitches," Verlander said. "Pretty much whatever I picked, I felt like I would be able to execute it."
One mistake. That's all he really made. Jonny Gomes smoked a curve ball into the seats just left of the foul pole in the second, but Tigers catcher Alex Avila said that had more to do with Gomes respecting the fastball and getting out ahead of the hook than anything. Ortiz made a loud out with a fly to left in the fourth, but it was Ortiz and it was an out. The first hit for Boston shouldn't have been a hit. Avila failed to catch a pop foul in the fifth, and then Gomes, given new life, beat out a slow grounder to short for an infield single.
Verlander had not allowed a run in 34 1/3 innings when Napoli came to bat in the seventh. Napoli worked the count to 3-2. He had just laid off the slider, he hadn't been catching up to the fastball, and he hadn't homered against Verlander since his first plate appearance against him – with the Anaheim Angels, on May 4, 2006. Verlander tried to hit the corner with a fastball down and in. It drifted over the plate. Just like that, it was gone.
"Your ace is out there doing his thing," Hunter said, "and then one home run, that determines the game."
It determined the game because of Lackey and the Boston bullpen, because the Tigers' offense – with Hunter and Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta and company – failed to score a single run for Verlander for the fourth time in his last six starts. The Tigers stranded a runner on third three times. They went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
The nadir: One out, bottom of the eighth, runners on first and third. The Red Sox had given the Tigers a gift, walking lifeless leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, and Hunter had singled him to third. Up came Cabrera, winner of the last three AL batting titles and reigning MVP, to face Junichi Tazawa. He struck out, whiffing badly at bad pitches, something you almost never see. Then up came Fielder, another superstar, to face Koji Uehara. He struck out, too.
"Oh, it's surprising," Hunter said. "You're talking about the best hitter on the planet, and Prince is pretty good up there. That's a credit to those guys on the mound. They made good pitches when they needed to, and we couldn't do much with it."
As his teammates said all the right things in the clubhouse – hey, they trailed Oakland 2-1, too, and came back to win the ALDS, so turn the page and all that – Verlander dressed alone at his stall. He pulled on dark jeans and a black leather jacket. He frowned through a news conference when he should have been smiling.
"Obviously, to give my team a chance to win today, I would have had to throw up all zeroes, and I wasn't able to do that," Verlander said. "I wouldn't say it's frustrating. It's …"
"You know, I think you kind of expect that, kind of, in this series."