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Like fraternity brothers exchanging the house handshake, the past and present Motown pitching phenoms extended their famous right arms toward each other in the spartan visiting manager's office at Fenway Park on Aug. 14. "So, you must be the rookie," said the older of the two, still possessed of that famously goofy grin and curly hair. This day happened to be the older man's birthday, but even at 52, Mark Fidrych exuded youthfulness, even if the golden locks that once spilled out from under a Tigers cap had turned to gray. � On the other end of the handshake, the second coming of Fidrych smiled. "Glad to meet you," 23-year-old Justin Verlander replied. As Fidrych did in that magical summer 30 years ago, Verlander has captivated baseball fans with a performance that, while lacking the Bird's showmanship, could win him the American League Rookie of the Year award (his 15 wins through Monday was tied for second best in the league) and the ERA title (his 3.05 was second).
Brothers in arms, the two righthanders talked pitching, of course. "How come when you guys throw a hundred pitches, it's only the sixth inning," Fidrych queried, "and when I threw a hundred it was the ninth?" The conversation--as all intramural chats between coal miners, circus acrobats, retirees and pitchers tend to--quickly came around to the preservation of health.
Fidrych, visiting from his home in Northborough, Mass., where he drives a commercial truck, gave Verlander a pointer. He told the rookie that when he was pitching, he used to land on a bent front leg as he released the baseball. Verlander, the Bird noted, sometimes lands on a stiff leg. "That will put more stress on your arm over time," Fidrych said.
In that moment everything that's both wonderful and worrisome about great young pitchers was never more evident. Fidrych's '76 season earned him a place on the Mount Rushmore of rookie prodigies, alongside Herb Score, Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden. None of those pitchers, however, will make the Hall of Fame, testifying to the tenuous nature of pitching at a young age.
Fidrych threw 250 1/3 innings as a rookie but only 162 more over the rest of his major league career, which lasted only five years. His arm gave out from the workload of throwing 24 complete games that season for an otherwise irrelevant Detroit team that finished 24 games out of first place. He threw six straight complete games in August, two of them extra-inning games while on three days of rest.
Verlander, whose considerable gifts include a fastball that has been clocked as high as 101 mph, and at 99 in the ninth inning, had thrown 153 1/3 innings at week's end, putting him on pace for 200 innings. That should scare the tar out of Tigers manager Jim Leyland and his omnipresent Marlboros. While hardly Birdlike, 200 innings is a frightful leap from the 130 innings Verlander threw last season as a first-year pro. The industry standard now is to limit young pitchers to annual increases of about 30 innings.
But Leyland's not too worried about his prodigy. With "agents, pitch counts, big contracts and MRIs," he notes, young pitchers are treated like Faberg� eggs. This season has revealed a whole crate of them who, like Verlander, could very well decide the pennant races--and beyond. Most of the young hurlers being relied on in September have never pitched a six-month season before (minor leagues typically wrap up around Labor Day) or have already exceeded their pro high in innings pitched. For instance, the Los Angeles Angels, who nursed 23-year-old Ervin Santana into October last year, are counting on righthander Jered Weaver, 23, who has already doubled the 76 innings he threw last year, and lefthander Joe Saunders, 25, who needed to gulp cough syrup at 6 a.m. to finally fall asleep before his first start at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 11. Saunders won that night, as he and Weaver almost always have this season. The two rookies were a combined 13--1 at week's end, and Weaver's 9--0 start equaled the AL record set by Whitey Ford for most wins to begin a career.
The National League race will be influenced by rookie starters in Los Angeles (Chad Billingsley); San Francisco ( Matt Cain); Arizona (Enrique Gonzalez); Houston ( Jason Hirsh); New York ( John Maine); Philadelphia ( Cole Hamels); and Florida ( Josh Johnson, Scott Olsen, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez).
In the AL, in addition to Los Angeles, Boston ( Jon Lester); Minnesota ( Matt Garza, Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano, who is expected back soon from a strained ligament in his left elbow); Texas ( Edinson Volquez); and Detroit (Verlander and Zach Miner) will be turning to young starters playing in September for the first time. August has already been cruel for several of these youngsters, including Gonzalez (5.64 ERA this month, compared with 4.96 before); Johnson (5.06 since Aug. 1, 2.50 before); Olsen (8.53 and 3.79); Lester (8.24 and 3.49); and Verlander (5.09 and 2.69). "I'm in uncharted waters, and I know it," Verlander says. "I don't know what it will be like until I go through it. But I feel like I'm doing everything I can to stay strong."
Few assignments in baseball are more difficult than getting a rookie pitcher, especially in the offense-heavy AL, to grind through 200 innings and live to tell about it with his shoulder and elbow intact. Ask that rookie to do so into a seventh month--the postseason--and the degree of difficulty rises much higher. Consider that in the 11 seasons since the wild-card format was born in 1995: