Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander draws the all-important Game 5 start Thursday in the American League Division Series, just as he did last season. The Tigers are hoping for similar results. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Oakland, Calif. — Studying him as he navigated the 2013 season was like watching a ship’s captain steer a freighter past rocky shoals.
It was not an easy year for Justin Verlander.
He had too many interludes. There were stretches when the fastball wasn’t there, or the location was off, or the curveball wasn’t kneecapping hitters who, in seasons past, had to prepare for his 98-mph heater and who often stood there, paralyzed, by the tight bite from his second deadliest pitch.
Verlander, of course, would brush off the meanderings as a forgettable slice of history. What counts in Verlander’s world is tonight’s game, which happens to be at O.co Coliseum, scene of his Game 5 masterpiece a year ago that sent the Tigers to the American League Championship Series. As fate has ruled, it’s again the site for a return engagement that will ship either the Tigers or the A’s into this year’s ALCS.
“I’m sure the commissioner (Bud Selig) is happy it’s going five,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Tuesday after the Tigers had revived to win Game 4 and set up tonight’s Division Series finale.
When it comes to appreciating baseball’s big moments, Leyland could have mentioned Verlander just as easily as Selig. Tonight is his pitcher’s shot at doing what an ace has been delivering for the Tigers since he began a phenomenal two-season run of starting pitching mastery in 2011.
Tonight, should he help beat the A’s, Verlander’s fan club will say it is all back in place: His role as the team’s Top Gun. His status as a world-stage, right-handed maestro who is at his best when his team most needs one player to be transcendent.
“Well, you don’t pretend,” Verlander said Tuesday after he was asked how a pitcher balanced competing needs: to not make so much of a start that it becomes its own straitjacket, while keeping in mind that this competitive moment is grand and decisive.
“It’s not just another game. The season is on the line. It’s a little bit different.”
You could see Verlander draw his own level of distinction in Game 2 last weekend at Oakland. Verlander had been gearing for weeks to have his particular pitching art and repertoire intact by the time Detroit hit the playoffs.
He was dead on schedule last Saturday night as he whipsawed the A’s with an artisan’s mix of fastballs, curveballs, change-ups, and even a few sliders that more and more have become part of his mix in 2013.
He struck out 11 batters in seven shutout innings. He walked one. He gave the A’s a stingy four-hit ration. He and the Tigers didn’t win, but Verlander was the same pitcher he had been during any of those dazzling months of 2011 and ’12 when he was either winning a Cy Young Award and MVP trophy (2011) or finishing runner-up by a hair to David Price (2012 Cy Young).
That his pitching so often was off-key this season made no sense. He pitched unevenly early, with few strikeouts, and never found much consistency as summer arrived and more mystery ensued.
During one disturbing stretch from June 18-July 25, Verlander never struck out more than five in a game. This, from a guy who might have struck out five in two innings during his 2011-12 siege.
With the national media crowd growing each game, Verlander is now being asked to explain what no one can yet quite understand. What happened to a pitcher who was like an Olympic athlete in his ability to deliver consummate performances at a prescribed time?
He turned 30 eight months ago, hardly an advanced age for superstars. How had it reconnected late in the season, almost as if Verlander had programmed it to kick in?
“Nice question,” he answered Tuesday, having some fun with himself, and with the media interrogator who wanted to know more about his twists and turns. “If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have had them (problems.).”
Getting it together
Verlander acknowledges adjustments were part of the healing process — “one of maybe a thousand that I tried to make this year,” he said Tuesday, keeping the conversation playful. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a quick process. I set a date that I needed to be ready at all costs for the postseason. The last month, I think I found some things that really benefited me: my locations, just my stuff in general.”
The layperson’s explanation is Verlander was dealing with a basic realignment to his pitching delivery and body motion. Earlier this season, he was not in the tight, synchronized flow that had made nearly every pitch, for hundreds of innings, an exercise in pure artistry.
His fastball was prone to being fouled off — or swatted — rather than missed. His curveball lost its downhill crunch. Spots he had earlier nailed in the fashion of a rifle-range marksman began to drift and to veer as Verlander fired away.
Then, on cue, came September. He won only once, and his performances were anything but breathtaking, but his repertoire began to look familiar. Better fastball. Sharper curve. More deft placement of his pitches also became the norm.
He has not yet overtaken Max Scherzer as this year’s best Tigers pitcher. Not by a mile. Nor does he care, not in the holistic way team players must always hold as their greater goal. He appreciated, in unique ways, what Scherzer did Tuesday in pitching with such splendor as a reliever, with the season at stake.
With the same awareness, he knows who he is. He knows why he is pitching tonight. He understands who will be watching, which will be most of the baseball cosmos, which understands this series, and this guy pitching for Detroit, promise an evening of entertainment only sports and sports excellence tend to craft.
The man loves this stuff. He wants one more chance to push some earlier, bewildering games into the trivia bin. To once again, tonight in Oakland, prove his and his team’s mettle with a playoff series crescendo.