It's difficult to believe that there could be much criticism for a pitcher who won the AL MVP and Cy Young Award last season.
But Justin Verlander carried a question over whether or not he could win a big game—more specifically, a playoff game—coming into the postseason.
That concern quickly arose in Game 1 of the ALDS between the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics, when Verlander served up a home run on his fourth pitch to A's leadoff hitter Coco Crisp. Before fans at Comerica Park and those watching around the country on TV could settle in, the Tigers were down 1-0.
Verlander quickly made those "Uh-oh!" feelings and "Here we go again!" sentiments go away, however. He allowed only two more hits while pitching seven innings and striking out 11 batters as the Tigers beat the A's, 3-1, to take a 1-0 series lead.
It wasn't a smooth cruise for Verlander after giving up the leadoff home run to Crisp. Oakland batters made him work. Verlander threw 26 pitches in the first inning, leading to 78 pitches thrown after four innings. This looked to be a potentially short night for Verlander, and the A's were likely rubbing their hands together in anticipation of facing Detroit's weaker middle relievers.
But 100-pitch limits don't apply to Verlander. He averaged 114 pitches per appearance this season. Only once this year did he throw fewer than 100 pitches, with 97 in a Sept. 8 loss to the Los Angeles Angels.
Besides, this is the playoffs. Verlander wasn't going to come out without throwing at least 120 pitches—not with six days of rest since his last regular-season start. The only question was how deep into the game that would take him.
Verlander got some wiggle room when Alex Avila's home run in the fifth inning gave Detroit a 3-1 lead. With a two-run cushion, perhaps he didn't have to be as fine with his pitches. (Though a generous strike zone from home-plate umpire Jim Reynolds didn't squeeze Verlander very much.) Verlander followed up in the top of the sixth by striking out the side.
For the game, the Tigers ace threw 121 pitches. Detroit needed Verlander to come out strong and establish himself over the A's from the beginning. He did exactly that on Saturday. Yes, it's only one game, but starting off his 2012 postseason with an effort that should quiet all questions about his performance in big games is extremely promising.
In eight previous postseason starts, Verlander had a 3-3 record and 5.57 ERA. During last year's playoff run with the Detroit Tigers, Verlander compiled a 5.36 ERA in four starts.
To be fair, his first playoff start in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS versus the New York Yankees was shortened by rain, and he lasted only one inning and allowed one run. Maybe Verlander would have gone on to pitch five or six scoreless innings from that point, but the weather took care of that.
The rain got Verlander again in the opening game of the ALCS, causing a delay of more than two hours that ended his night after four innings.
Though the weather in Detroit Saturday night was typically chilly for an October evening, there was no rain. That already made Game 1 of this year's ALDS better for Verlander—he knew he would be able to pitch without Mother Nature batting against him in addition to Oakland hitters.
As Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after the game, the six-day rest probably took Verlander out of his routine. Nearly all athletes are typically creatures of habit, but a regular regimen is especially important for a starting pitcher, because that's what he follows through a 162-game schedule and 33 starts.
So perhaps Verlander wasn't at his sharpest to begin the game and that allowed the A's to work up his pitch counts in the early innings. But then Avila hit his fifth-inning home run. You could see on TV how pumped up Verlander was when Avila came back to the dugout. That may have given him the extra juice he needed to finish off his night strongly.
With that, Verlander and the Tigers have gotten their 2012 postseason off to a better start than last year when they lost to the Yankees, 9-3. Detroit doesn't have to play catch-up early in the series, and it's the A's who are back on their heels going into Game 2.
Those who picked the Tigers to advance in the playoffs and/or win the AL pennant likely did so for one reason: Verlander. He's the kind of ace, the stud arm that can win two to three games and carry a team to success.
He now has one of those wins in this ALDS. This postseason is already looking better for Verlander. The A's and the rest of the MLB playoff field should be afraid.
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