World Series 2012: One Bad Start or Did Justin Verlander Fold Under Pressure?

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World Series 2012: One Bad Start or Did Justin Verlander Fold Under Pressure?

If you watched ESPN's E:60 feature on Justin Verlander recently, you know that the Detroit Tigers ace has always dealt with excess energy and hyperactivity. 

So perhaps, the worst thing for Verlander was to not pitch for seven days and let all that nervous energy and anxiety build up. It certainly looked that way, as the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner lasted only four innings, giving up five runs and six hits as the San Francisco Giants won Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, 8-3.

While learning to slow down, pace himself and work efficiently has made him into one of the best pitchers in baseball, Verlander was almost certainly going to be amped up for the World Series opener.

Verlander with too much oomph is not necessarily a good thing. He tends to overthrow. Those fastballs might have some serious heat to them, but not with the movement and location that typically makes Verlander's stuff untouchable. 

As long-time Tigers blogger Bill Ferris put it on Twitter, Verlander kept missing with his fastball, and his breaking ball was spinning in the middle of the plate. The first batter to take advantage of that was Pablo Sandoval, crushing a first-inning home run to center field. 

Verlander was victimized by some bad luck in the third inning when Angel Pagan's ground ball hit the third-base bag and skipped past Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera into left field. But from there, the Giants hitters were able to take advantage of Verlander's off-night.

The next three batters got hits—including Sandoval's second homer of the game—resulting in three more runs and a 4-0 lead for San Francisco. After three innings, Verlander had allowed more runs than he had in his previous three starts of the postseason. 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Pablo Sandoval got the best of Justin Verlander in the 2012 World Series opener.

Verlander's performance in those past three games should have erased any doubt as to whether or not he was a big-game pitcher. Despite all his accomplishments—Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award, MVP—Verlander hadn't pitched well in the postseason.

In eight prior playoff starts, he had a 3-3 record and 5.57 ERA. In his four appearances last postseason, Verlander compiled a 5.57 ERA. 

Even in this season's All-Star Game—which is an exhibition, but arguably a big game, given the national attention and World Series implications—Verlander allowed five runs, four hits and two walks in his one inning as the American League's starting pitcher. 

But in his three starts during the Tigers' run to the World Series, Verlander was at the top of his game.

He had a 3-0 record and 0.74 ERA coming into Game 1. He had 25 strikeouts in 24.1 innings, while allowing 10 hits and five walks. Opposing batters were hitting only .122 against him. Verlander looked exactly like the ace and postseason stud he was supposed to be. 

So, was this just one bad game for Verlander, or did he crumble under the pressure?

The man has thrown two no-hitters. He was named the best pitcher—and the best player—in the AL last season, helping carry his team to a division title and ALCS berth. Verlander has won plenty of games when the Tigers absolutely needed him to.

Though the spotlight is brightest in the World Series, Verlander has faced pressure before and pitched magnificently. Just look back to his complete-game, four-hit shutout in Game 5 of the ALDS versus the Oakland Athletics. The Tigers' season was on the line, and he pitched one of the best games of his career. 

H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports
Was Justin Verlander's Game 1 performance just one bad game?

The opening game of this World Series was different, but not because of the stakes involved. Besides making him too hyper, the seven-day layoff since his last start was also certain to dull Verlander's edge.

Starting pitchers are creatures of habit, bound to their routine of pitching every five days. That's not to say that Verlander and his fellow starting pitchers are so mentally fragile that an extra day here or there is going to completely knock them off track. But pitching can be just like any other job. Take some time off and you might come back refreshed, but you also might be slow to get back to the same pace you were accustomed to before the break. 

Verlander simply wasn't sharp, which was glaringly apparent from his performance. Let's see how he pitches in Game 5 after he's gone through his usual five-day routine and gotten back in sync.

If he struggles the second time around—presuming the series goes to a fifth game, I feel obligated to say—then the Tigers might really have something to worry about. Until then, he's still Detroit's best pitcher and could very well be the reason his team wins the 2012 World Series. 

 

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