10/14/2013 8:30 P.M. ET
Verlander is the antidote for Boston's momentum
Despite up-and-down regular season, ace is Tigers' best chance at title
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
DETROIT -- This is the game that Tigers ace Justin Verlander was born to pitch, because he's the definition of a No. 1 starter. For starters, he understands and accepts that legacies are built on games such as this one.
Verlander wants to be out there when the stakes are the highest and the spotlight the brightest. Even better, there's no one that his teammates would rather have on the mound on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET for Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox.
So after everything that happened on Sunday night at Fenway Park, the Tigers are still feeling pretty good about themselves, because Verlander's 98-mph heater is one of the best known antidotes for killing an opposing team's momentum.
"It's great to have Verlander going," right fielder Torii Hunter said. "He's going to give us every opportunity to come up with a win."
Added center fielder Austin Jackson: "We're definitely confident when he's on the mound."
Maybe you've heard that the Tigers were the victim of an abrupt and demoralizing knockout punch in Game 2 of the ALCS. David Ortiz's stunning eighth-inning grand slam erased a four-run lead, and an inning later, Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled home the winning run.
The Tigers were a mere four outs from taking a 2-0 series lead back home when Ortiz delivered. But with Fenway Park thunderously loud and the Red Sox exploding in celebration in the dugout, it felt like something had fundamentally changed in an ALCS that is now tied at a game apiece.
Verlander is capable of grabbing the momentum right back. Here's his line for two postseason starts against the A's this year -- 15 innings, six hits, no runs, two walks, 21 strikeouts.
How's that for dominance?
If Verlander is at his best, the Tigers could ride him all the way to a championship. Those two dominant performances against the A's are a reminder that he is still capable of greatness.
For much of the season, Verlander was far from perfect if the comparison is against, well, Justin Verlander. He had fewer innings, strikeouts and victories in 2013 than he did in 2012.
Almost every player has had a season like that, when he feels he's playing exactly the same way and feels almost exactly the same, yet the numbers sometimes go down for no apparent reason.
"I attribute it to [the fact that] we're not robots, we're athletes," Verlander said. "You can't just say you're going to go out and be perfect, [that] everything is going to be right where you want every time. That's just the nature of this game, and specifically this game. Guys have up-and-down seasons. You can't just rely on athletic ability or whatever it may be. There's a lot of fine-tuned things that go into mechanics -- not just pitching, hitting as well. You look at the back of Hall of Famers' bubble gum cards, there's seasons that are down. It's just kind of the way this game is."
According to fangraphs.com, Verlander's average fastball velocity is down 1 mph, from last season's 94.3 to this season's 93.3. But Verlander has made it clear that focusing on one aspect of his game would be to ignore other important factors.
"It was a grind for me all year," he said. "I could probably sit here and name 50 adjustments that I tried to make that didn't quite work or did help. Who knows what helped along the way and what didn't?"
Verlander has made so many mechanical adjustments that he's having trouble keeping his delivery consistent, but the A's might not have seen the problem.
"But I really felt like the last month of the season, I started to kind of get it to click," he said. "And with all the adjustments that I made, when I'm out on the mound, I've still got those in my head a little bit. I try to shove them in the back of [my] mind; you want to forget them and pitch. When I know things aren't right and I'm trying to get them right, [you think], 'Let's do this, let's do that.' I found the only thing is execution. I feel like my mechanics are where they need to be, and I need to execute. Just forget about all that and just make my pitches."
As several of Verlander's teammates have said, a regular season that was less than satisfying will be forgotten if he is in the kind of groove he was in for those postseason starts against the A's.
In those he was as dominant as he has ever been, and if he has another one like that in him, that bullpen meltdown on Sunday will long since be forgotten.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.