Verlander proves to be human after all

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ARLINGTON, Texas – The run that beat the Detroit Tigers, that was the one that encapsulated Justin Verlander’s(notes) Saturday night, between the rain drops and tarp reps and delay-killing country hymns.

It’s the one that put the Detroit Tigers in another hole, not so much different than the one they dragged themselves out of in New York, but still an uncomfortable one, given this was Verlander, and they’ve become so accustomed to his brilliance, and it’s so much of what they are about.

He’d given up a couple runs in the second inning, by the end of which he’d thrown 49 pitches. But he’d struck out two Texas Rangers in the third inning, and Rangers ace and left-hander C.J. Wilson(notes) wasn’t looking all that sturdy either, so two runs weren’t going to beat Verlander or the Tigers.

Nelson Cruz(notes) led off the fourth inning. He’d batted .067 in the Rangers’ division series, after batting .190 in September. His meek fly ball to left field had made him hitless in 10 consecutive at-bats. He was in the worst kind of slump.

Verlander murders those guys. He doesn’t solve slumps, he rubs your nose in them.

So Cruz looked at a fastball away, down in the low 90s, for ball one. Ball two looked a lot like it.

Verlander was slightly out of his mechanics, feeling for them on every pitch. His slider was useless. He’d fall behind, so could hardly use his curveball. David Murphy(notes), two innings before, had laced a changeup into the right center-field gap.

Against Cruz, he had to get back into the strike zone. Just had to. So he threw the fastball, middle-in, trying to win the count.

“Ball one, ball two, cookie,” Verlander described. “That’s not me.”

Oh, but it was.

Cruz hit it into the seats in left field. The Rangers led, 3-0, on their way to a bullpen-powered, twice-delayed, 3-2 win in the first game of the American League championship series.

[Related: Rangers ride relievers to Game 1 win in ALCS]

“It was a changeup,” Cruz said.

Only, it wasn’t a changeup at all. It was a fastball. And that’s exactly how fouled up Verlander had become, as fastballs smeared into changeups, and breaking balls veered out of the zone, and even when he clenched his jaw at close pitches that went against him, he couldn’t blame the umpire. He thought maybe he didn’t have those calls coming, given the depth of imprecision he’d carry through 82 pitches.

“I just didn’t have it,” Verlander said. “My location wasn’t very good at all. My off-speed stuff wasn’t great. … One of those days.”

For six months, Verlander didn’t have those days. They were for other guys. For more than a week now, however, Verlander’s been – I don’t know – different.

In Game 3 of the division series, Verlander looked like a pitcher with superior stuff and spotty command, and so like a grinder up against one of the better offenses in baseball. Like giving up four runs was admirable, because the Yankees had all those big, smart, veteran hitters, and they’d get theirs eventually and the whole trick – pitching against them – was to keep that at one fewer than yours got.

Like the first inning of Game 1 – which was suspended after an inning-and-a-half – was a fluke of control. Maybe some playoff nerves. The weather was cool. The rain was coming. Something.

Then he gets the ball Saturday night in Texas and he’s a little wild, like maybe plate umpire Tim Welke’s strike zone was wandering. Or he needed to get his legs under him on a foreign mound or his release point had been blown across the prairie. Something.

Maybe, though, there’s more to this.

Verlander, the best pitcher in baseball in 2011, threw 3,941 pitches, the most in the game by far. And he’s thrown 227 more in the playoffs, second only to Roy Halladay’s(notes) 230. And Halladay’s done now.

Over 34 regular-season starts and technically two in the postseason, Verlander had walked more than three batters twice.

Saturday, and for the second time this postseason, he walked two in the same inning.

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He walked Curtis Granderson(notes) and Mark Teixeira(notes) in the first inning of the division series’ Game 1, the only inning he’d throw that night, and gave up a run. He walked three in Game 3, and allowed four runs. He walked two – Ian Kinsler(notes) and Michael Young(notes) – in the first inning Saturday and, when rain delayed the game in the top of the fifth, Verlander already had allowed three runs.

So, he’d walked seven batters in his first 10 innings of the playoffs, and when Cruz homered to start the fourth inning, Verlander had allowed eight runs in 12 postseason innings.

Now, the man is a beast on the mound. And he appeared disappointed in some of the ball-strike calls from Welke. And, when Austin Jackson(notes) dropped a routine fly ball in center field in the first inning, that cost him 10 extra pitches.

But, by the time the grounds crew lugged the tarp across the infield, Verlander had thrown 82 pitches in four innings, the Rangers weren’t biting on his curveball, his fastball was hovering in the mid-90s and not at all close to his reputation, and his playoff ERA was 5.54.

Who’s that guy? And when’s the old Verlander come back?

He said he discovered a fix to his mechanical flaw during the first rain delay, and that he’d intended on returning to the mound when – after only 13 minutes of play – more rain came, washing him out in mid-start for the second time this postseason.

“Yeah,” he said, “if anywhere in the country has a drought, bring me in.”

He’s scheduled for Game 5, but could be in play for Game 4. Rick Porcello(notes), the Tigers’ Game 4 starter, was forced to pitch two innings in relief of Verlander. Tigers manager Jim Leyland had yet to reset his rotation late Saturday night. Verlander said he’d take the ball whenever, wherever.

His arms crossed across his chest, Verlander promised the Tigers would be back. It’s one game. It’s a best-of-seven. These things happen.

“Same thing as last time,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘Verlander didn’t get the win, that team’s beat.’ Didn’t happen.”

So, yes, the Tigers will be back. They’ll need Verlander – the real Verlander – to come with them.

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