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As calculated by baseball-reference.com, Verlander's WAR this season trails that of fellow MVP candidate Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays and is just ahead of Boston centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury's. But his value to the first-place Tigers extends to ways difficult for any statistic to count, such as his ability to neatly snuff out losing streaks (he is 15--3 with a 1.53 ERA in starts following a Detroit loss) and to keep the club's relievers fresh to support other starters. ("It's really a two-, three-day effect of what he does for the bullpen," says rotation No. 2 Max Scherzer.) Verlander struggles to hide his desire to be named MVP. "Of course I care about it," he says. "Pitchers are players. It's the Most Valuable Player award." Still, he insists that there is much to be done before his name is or is not called in early November. "Right now, I don't mind talking about it, but there's a lot of other stuff going on," he says.
At 10:15 a.m. sharp on Sept. 7, an hour and 50 minutes before game time, Verlander strode into the visitors clubhouse at Cleveland's Progressive Field wearing large headphones, a tailored plaid vest over a pink dress shirt and an expression that did not invite the establishment of eye contact, let alone conversation. "I don't know if ornery's the right word to describe him on days he's starting, but he's zeroed in," says Leyland. "He's locked into it."
Verlander's focus was on the music he was piping into his skull—he starts with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and then moves on to hard rock, always including the 2008 Shinedown song Second Chance—and on his plan that day for the Indians, which was the same as it is for every team he faces: to no-hit them. "I don't ever go out there thinking, This guy's going to get a hit," he explained the afternoon before. "Therefore, if I'm thinking that, I'm thinking I'm going to throw a no-hitter. It's happened a couple times, and I've come close a few more."
Verlander has thrown two no-hitters, one in 2007 against the Brewers and one in Toronto in May, when he was one walk removed from a perfect game and threw a 100-mph fastball to the game's final batter. A no-hitter would elude him in Cleveland, but his start was in many ways similar to the others he has made this season. He began free and easy, holding back on his fastball in search of quick, outing-extending outs, and he succeeded, retiring the first three hitters on just 14 pitches, none of which topped 93 miles per hour. It was the first of three half-innings in which he threw 14 or fewer pitches, with none over 93. The only hits Verlander allowed in his six innings of work, in fact, came on pitches on which he decided to dial up his velocity—a pair of 96-mph fastballs that Shelley Duncan turned into two-run home runs, and a 97-mph heater that became a Thome double. His 113th and final pitch of the day was his fastest, a 98-mph fastball that struck out Thome to end the sixth, with the Tigers trailing 4--2. But Detroit scored five runs in the top of the seventh, and the game concluded with another tick in Verlander's win column.
The unusually early game time, the sparse and torpid crowd, the intermittently rainy weather, the Tigers' comfortable position in the AL Central (which they led by 10½ games through Sunday)—all of those factors might have helped explain why Verlander wasn't as consistently sharp as he usually is. None of those factors, except perhaps the meteorological one, will be in play on Sept. 30, when Verlander starts Game 1 of the Tigers' opening playoff series against, most likely, the Yankees or the Red Sox. The prospect of facing Verlander twice in a five-game series is unnerving. "It's like the Cliff Lee thing last year with Texas," says Teixeira. "You knew they had a chance to win it all because Lee was going to have a chance to pitch at least twice in every series. Verlander is the same way."
Lee is another pitcher who showed the potential for transcendence early in his career, and who put everything together after he reached his late 20s. He has led his teams, first the Phillies and then the Rangers, to the World Series in each of the past two seasons. It is now Verlander's turn.