The ace starting pitcher has always been something of a mythological figure in baseball. The No. 1 guy, the stud arm who can mow down opposing batters with the fireballs he throws.
Scouts and general managers spend their careers in pursuit of such a pitcher. Acquiring that kind of arm can turn a mediocre team into a good one, a good club into a great one.
Is it a coincidence that the Detroit Tigers have once again become an American League power as Justin Verlander has developed into one of the best—if not the best—pitchers in MLB? Verlander's rookie season of 2006 is the same year that the Tigers made their surprise run to the World Series. Since then, Detroit has been a regular AL playoff contender.
Verlander already became a legendary figure last season. Winning the AL Cy Young Award was the rebuttal to those who felt that he was a very, very good pitcher, but not great. Then he was a surprise winner of the AL Most Valuable Player award. Affirmation, baby. He wasn't just the best pitcher in the league, he was the best player.
While Verlander will probably cede AL MVP honors to teammate Miguel Cabrera this year, he could still win a second consecutive Cy Young Award.
During the regular season, he finished second in the league with a 2.64 ERA, 1.06 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) and an opponents' batting average of .217. For the second year in a row, Verlander led the AL in strikeouts (239) and innings pitched (238.1), indicating both dominance over the competition and durability for his team.
Yet there was still one last thing for Verlander's critics to point to: His performance during the postseason.
Prior to this year, Verlander had a 3-3 record and 5.57 ERA in the playoffs. In four starts during the Tigers' run to the ALCS, he compiled a 5.36 ERA in four starts. Those aren't the numbers of greatness.
But that apparently just presented one more challenge for Verlander to overcome, yet another bugaboo to squash. For the Tigers to advance further through the AL playoffs—to reach the World Series heights that many analysts, reporters and fans had projected for them—Verlander had to be as great during the playoffs as he was during the regular season.
In three starts this postseason, Verlander has been every bit the ace, the No. 1 guy, the stud. He's been the unstoppable force and the immovable object. In 24.1 innings, Verlander has an 0.74 ERA with an 0.62 WHIP and 25 strikeouts while opponents are batting .122 against him.
But it was in Game 5, a do-or-die game with the Tigers' season on the line, that Verlander truly took on the ace role and found it fit him like a meticulously tailored suit. No wrinkles, not uncomfortable at the shoulders or the waist, sleeves and pants at the ideal length.
Verlander pitched a complete-game shutout, allowing four hits and striking out 11. If you were wondering what an ace looked like, Verlander provided the quintessential example.
While the same urgency may not have been there for Game 3 of the ALCS versus the New York Yankees on Tuesday night (Oct. 16), it was arguably just as important for Verlander to assert himself as he had in the previous series.
With a win, the Yankees would be right back in the series, cutting the Tigers' lead to 2-1. They could also claim a victory over Detroit's ace, beating the Tigers at their best. If they could defeat Verlander, why couldn't the Yanks come back to win the series as well?
But if such hopes and ambitions were flickering within the Yankees, Verlander doused them with another shutdown performance. He only struck out three batters, leading some—like TBS broadcaster Ron Darling—to say that Verlander wasn't at his best.
However, he still held the Yankees to one run and three hits over 8.1 innings. No, the Yankees aren't swinging the bats well. Their best hitters have been non-factors during the playoffs. But Game 3 was a must-win for the Yankees and Verlander still handcuffed them. And if he didn't have his best stuff, his performance was arguably even more impressive.
Verlander has reminded us what an ace truly is, giving those of us who didn't see Bob Feller, Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson an idea of what it must have been like to watch that kind of pitcher. (If CC Sabathia goes nine innings in Game 4 and holds Detroit to two or fewer runs, he'll maintain that ace aura as well.)
It might seem over-reactionary or hyperbolic to put Verlander in the same sentence as those all-time greats. And yes, it is. Don't bang your desk or pull your hair out. Verlander doesn't yet have the same accomplishments on his résumé. But he just might be the closest thing we'll ever get.
As corny as it might be (I'm letting my geek flag fly here), I can't help but think of the conversation Ra's al Ghul and Bruce Wayne had toward the beginning of Batman Begins when thinking of Justin Verlander.
"If you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you," al Ghul says, "then you become something else entirely."
"Which is?" asks Wayne.
"A legend, Mr. Wayne," says Al Ghul.
Maybe Tigers manager Jim Leyland has had a similar chat with his ace.
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