Verlander overcomes poor playoff history to dominate A's in Game 1
Justin Verlander did not have a history of success in the playoffs before Game 1
He has learned to harness his emotions, and his fastball, in big-game situations
His 2012 stats are eerily similar to 2011, but his goal is to always try to get better
DETROIT -- Shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday evening, Oakland A's outfielder Coco Crisp committed the dastardly, almost treasonous act of hitting a home run off of Justin Verlander. and that was enough of that. The A's did not score on Verlander again. Eleven times, they struck out and had to go back to the dugout, or to their rooms without dinner. I can never remember which.
Verlander did not come here to play your silly games, Mr. Crisp. He came to this postseason to dominate, the way he has for the last two seasons, and to fix the one little blemish on a career that could bring him to the Hall of Fame. His 3-1 victory in Game 1 of the American League Division Series is a nice start.
There was one legitimate baseball criticism of Verlander when he walked to the mound Saturday evening in Detroit, and I can assure you he was aware of it. On the subject of his pitching, Verlander is the world's most relentless reporter. The criticism was this:
In eight career postseason games, he had a 5.57 earned-run average.
That 5.75 ERA was a bit misleading for two reasons. First, four of the games were in 2006, his rookie year, when he was mentally and physically exhausted -- he had never pitched so many innings in one season, on any level, and he admitted later he just didn't know how to handle it.
And last year, two of his starts ended early because of rain. One of his starts came two days after one of those rain-shorted outings. He admitted this spring that the rain "threw everything off, and it was really hard for me to keep my rhythm."
These are not excuses. Verlander does not traffic in excuses -- certainly not anymore. They are not even reasons. They are lessons. After his rookie season, he promised himself he would be stronger at the end of seasons, and now he has the best stamina of any starting pitcher of his generation. After last season he vowed to handle the rain-induced scheduling chaos better the next time around, and I bet he will.
Verlander blew the A's away for seven innings -- in one stretch, he struck out five in a row. And for Oakland, that wasn't even the disturbing part. No, the disturbing part was that after seven dominant innings against one of the hottest teams in baseball, Verlander said "early on, didn't have great control with really any of my pitches" and "obviously four walks is inexcusable".
This is Verlander now, just the right level of perfectionist, and it's a frightening sight. There was a time when he would show up for a big game and try to throw every fastball through his catcher's heart. He ratcheted up his intensity so high that he couldn't control his emotions or his fastball -- and when a power pitcher can't control his fastball, he is in trouble. It frustrated his manager, Jim Leyland, and kept Verlander from true greatness. He wanted to dominate so badly that he often didn't.
Verlander learned, just like he always does. He has learned, over time, how to be ready for the start of spring training, how to pace himself through games, and how to dial up his best fastball when he needs it. And so, with his postseason reputation on the line Saturday, Verlander looked ... exactly the same.
"It was like the middle of May today, as far as we went about it," his catcher Alex Avila said. "He is so intense and so detail-oriented that you can't go any higher of intensity or prepare anymore."
Verlander could give America an Orel Hershiser kind of October, so thoroughly awesome that the rest of baseball ends up like Avila on Saturday: amazed. Verlander didn't have pinpoint control, but Avila said his fastball was as explosive as the catcher had ever seen it.
"There were a couple that handcuffed me because they were moving a lot," Avila said.
The Tigers have the best pitcher and hitter in the playoffs, and maybe in all of baseball. Verlander and Miguel Cabrera cannot win the World Series alone. Baseball doesn't work that way. The Tigers must overcome weak defense, inconsistent baserunning, a lack of lineup depth and a shaky bullpen. There are a lot of flaws there.
And yet ... well, the A's either have to win the next three games, or beat Verlander in a decisive Game 5. Good luck, gentlemen.
Beating Verlander these days is just so tough. That is how he likes it. After his 2011 Most Valuable Player season, a lot of people naturally assumed Verlander would not be the same in 2012. He admitted he didn't expect to be the same.
He expected to be better.
"I've seen people let down and not do as well," Verlander told me in spring training. "I don't want that to happen to me ... If ever you think you're as good as you're gonna get, in my opinion, you've lost. If I have 10 seasons in a row like I had last year, I still think I can get better."
Was he better? The numbers:
In an average start in 2011, he pitched 7.4 innings, allowed 5.3 hits and 1.97 runs, and walked 1.7 men.
In an average start in 2012, he pitched 7.2 innings, allowed 5.8 hits and 2.12 runs, and walked 1.8 men.
So he was not quite as dominant ... but man, he was awfully close. He started one more game and allowed three more earned runs.
Now he is better than he was in 2011 in one significant way: Postseason pitching. Justin Verlander arrives at the ballpark with four excellent pitches and everything he has learned in seven years in the major leagues. Those poor guys in the other uniforms just have their bats. I feel for them.