If the 2013 Detroit Tigers had a chance of reaching the World Series for a second consecutive season, it was almost a necessity for Justin Verlander to return to the dominant form that appeared to have gotten away from him for most of the year.
Unfortunately for opposing hitters set to face off against Detroit in the playoffs, the 30-year-old Verlander has done just that.
And it was just in the nick of time; his team needed two amazing performances from him to sneak by the Oakland A's in the ALDS.
Over the previous four regular seasons (2009-2012), Verlander was one of the best pitchers in baseball, posting a 2.95 ERA with 7.3 hits per nine innings, 2.4 walks per nine and 9.2 strikeouts per nine. He's averaged over seven innings per start during that span. That is clear No. 1 starter production.
While his 2013 regular-season numbers weren't drastically different, he was more hittable (8.7 H/9), his walks were up slightly (3.1 BB/9), and he only averaged 6.1 innings per start while posting a 3.46 ERA.
Still a No. 1? Sure. But not the numbers of a true "ace," which is what he has been of late.
Verlander showed signs of a turnaround in early September, as pointed out in the ESPN Insider (subscriber only) piece by Eno Sarris. But it wasn't until his second to last start of the regular season that he finally put it all back together.
Over those last two regular-season starts and his two postseason starts versus Oakland, Verlander has been nearly unhittable. In 27 scoreless innings, the right-hander has allowed only 15 hits and walked six while striking out 43 hitters. Of the 15 hits, 13 have been singles and two have been doubles.
A focus on the little things, as mentioned in this article by Jim Caple of ESPN, appears to have helped, although Verlander admits to not being able to pinpoint which one of those little things did the trick.
"I could probably sit here and name 50 adjustments that I tried to make that didn't quite work or did help," Verlander said, via Tim Rohan of the New York Times. "Who knows what helped along the way and what didn't?"
His velocity has been down slightly, according to FanGraphs (93.3 mph in 2013; 94.3 mph in 2012; 95.0 mph in 2011), and two veteran hitters told ESPN's Buster Olney that Verlander could no longer throw the ball past hitters and needed to rely more on his other pitches. They may have spoken too soon.
Signs also point to improved fastball command as being the key to Verlander's late-season success.
After a May 16 loss to the Rangers in which he allowed eight earned runs in 2.2 innings pitched, Verlander spoke of an inability to command his fastball. He missed well outside with a 3-0 fastball to Adrian Beltre while trying to throw the ball down the middle and then missed right over the heart of the plate on a pitch meant to be in on Geovany Soto, who crushed a three-run homer.
Fast-forward to Verlander's ALDS Game 5 gem last Thursday, in which he allowed two singles and a walk over eight scoreless innings while striking out 10 and holding the A's hitless through 6.2 innings.
Verlander realized early on that A's hitters were having a hard time catching up to his fastball. He decided to stick primarily with that pitch until they showed that they could hit it. It never happened.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Verlander's 18 swings-and-misses were the most he's had in the past five seasons. His change up was also working, in large part due to the effective fastball. But he also threw 12 of 17 changeups for strikes.
That's a recipe for dominance.
Set to take the mound again in Game 3 of the ALCS on Tuesday, Verlander will face a Red Sox lineup that had success against him (5 IP, 4 ER, 7 H, 3 BB, 4 K) when he wasn't at his best back in June. If the fastball command shows up again, though, Sox hitters won't have nearly as much fun as they did on that day.