After winning the AL MVP and Cy Young Award last season, Justin Verlander had clearly already ascended to the best pitcher in baseball. He could follow that up by winning Cy Young honors again this year.
But the national audience that tunes in for the MLB playoffs may not have seen for themselves how impressive Verlander can be. During last year's postseason, he compiled a 2-1 record and 5.34 ERA in four starts. Some may have seen that and wondered what the big deal about the Detroit Tigers ace was.
If any doubters remained, Verlander has surely made believers out of them this year.
Verlander has been dominant in his three playoff appearances. Against the Oakland Athletics, he allowed one run in his two starts. That included a complete-game shutout in the Game 5 ALDS clincher. In the ALCS, Verlander effectively finished off the New York Yankees by holding them to one run in a Game 3 they had to win.
Thus far through the 2012 postseason, Verlander has a 3-0 record, 0.74 ERA and 0.62 WHIP. He's struck out 25 batters (versus five walks) in 24.1 innings while allowing an opponents' batting average of .122.
Does the National League team that the Tigers will face in the World Series—whether it's the St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants—stand any chance against Verlander?
Making matters worse, the Tigers' four-game sweep of the Yankees allows Detroit manager Jim Leyland to set up his starting rotation exactly how he wants it.
Verlander will start Game 1 and presumably Game 5 on his normal rotation. Leyland surely won't play the "start the ace on short rest" game unless he has to. Verlander probably wouldn't start a Game 7 if the World Series progressed that far, but he would likely be available for one or two innings after two days' rest.
The Cardinals' eight-run outburst in Game 4 of the NLCS might indicate that their lineup has shaken out of its collective malaise. Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Allen Craig each struggled through the first three games of the series but broke out of their respective slumps with run-producing hits in St. Louis' 8-3 win on Thursday (Oct. 18).
Add in Carlos Beltran and Matt Carpenter and the Cardinals' lineup looks much more like the unit that scored 765 runs, the second-highest total in the NL this season. St. Louis also ranked second in team batting average at .271 and third with a .759 team OPS.
For what it's worth, Verlander pitched once against the Cardinals this year. He allowed three runs (one earned) and five hits over seven innings in a start at Comerica Park in mid-June. Verlander also issued four walks while only notching three strikeouts in the game.
Prior to that, the last time Verlander faced the Cardinals was in 2009. Both St. Louis and Detroit have completely different rosters now.
But, there's nothing to go on when it comes to Verlander pitching against the Giants. He's never faced San Francisco before.
Marco Scutaro has 26 plate appearances versus Verlander. He's batting .200 (5-for-25) with one double, a triple and nine strikeouts. Hunter Pence has faced the Tigers right-hander three times in his career, getting one hit and one RBI.
Gregor Blanco is 0-for-3. Aubrey Huff is 3-for-17 (.176), but what are the chances he gets more than a couple of at-bats against Verlander? Melky Cabrera—oh, never mind about him.
So we really can't say for certain which of these teams would stand a better chance in facing Verlander. But, that doesn't necessarily stop us from taking a guess.
The Cardinals have one of the best lineups in MLB, ranking among the top five in team runs scored and batting average. They appear capable of beating any pitcher when everyone's swinging the bat well. In Game 4 of the NLCS, that's exactly what happened.
Unlike last season when they were second to last in runs scored and 28th out of 30 MLB teams in batting average, the Giants could produce some runs this year. In fact, they ranked 12th with 718 runs scored. Their .269 team batting average ranked fifth. Yet, those bats haven't shown up during the postseason.
Over the past two seasons, there's been Justin Verlander and then everybody else. That especially applies during the 2012 MLB playoffs. It might not matter who Verlander faces in the World Series. Neither team might not provide much opposition.
But, the Cardinals have a way of shredding expectations and continuing to surprise. Verlander and the Tigers should probably approach with caution if St. Louis wins the NL pennant.
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