Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Justin Verlander Wasn't Great, but Is the Beast of Fall


The readings of the radar gun, wildly indicating the velocities on the scoreboard in Comerica Park, were vicious and nasty delivered from Justin Verlander. He likes velocity. He studies the batters. And eventually, he throws 95-96 mph fastballs, pitching by far at his best in the postseason, a terrifying ace to face in the moment of hot streaks, especially when he finds a groove.

Back at home in Detroit, he was saluted by the waving towels of the feverous Tigers' fans, and heard the cheers of "M-V-P!" repeatedly. The struggles in the first inning, which Verlander couldn't track the speed or find the location of his pitches, troubled the Cy Young candidate as he allowed two runs and had to find his command.

There were times in his career, such as Monday night when he had a remarkable performance and had thrown his fastball that traveled faster than a car pursuit, that he was the strikeout machine. This was not his greatest outing but he had the meanest fastball, despite his inability to produce from the start in the Division Series, knowing his capabilities when he dominated the majors all season.

It was a spectacle, the undaunted pitches we all waited to see, throwing an array of fastballs and seen by spectators striking out the sides. In the town where fans have seen misfortune and not enough triumph -- including the economic downturns as the automakers crippled, as the unemployment rate increasingly rose and as the outcome of the text-messaging sex scandal involving the mayor turned uglier -- Verlander and the Detroit Tigers are the most enjoyable story for the community.

The early demise of the greatest pitcher in baseball never lasted long -- and in response to his blunders -- he stayed ahead in the pitch counts, found his location and attacked the strike zone.

The pitches were thrown well and traveled as fast as a Ferrari driving 100 mph, and when he had the ability to retire hitters, he had more confidence and he had plenty of discipline. Has there ever been a consistent star in this town that everyone adores? Absolutely. But the city has not seen a prodigal athlete in quite some time.

What we have here, mind you, is a pitcher as advertised, a spectacular panorama for baseball. Maybe he is fittingly what was needed for the sport with the reality of the situation. Because he has saved the sport from itself, and doesn’t seem to be a hoax in the majors, he is gladly admired and he is the primary sports figure in a town that witnessed him strike out Nick Swisher to end the fourth.

His manager, Jim Leyland, is not satisfied until the series is over, of course, but he is tense and Verlander relieved nerves when he struck the side in the fifth. In addition to that, he went after Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez in the sixth, with his 100 mph fastball that flew past the plate.

We can see the brilliance of Verlander, a legend on the rise before our very eyes. A star is certainly born in October. With talent comes greatness. And by virtue, with confidence comes diligence. It’s not bad for Verlander, who has become Mr. October, rising in autumn and regarded as the best pitching talent.

So while it wasn’t the best performance of his monumental career as a big-leaguer, he threw 120 pitches and stayed in the game most of the night. What we all know is, even when he struck out seven of the nine Yankees he faced, Verlander wasn’t dominant or impeccable as far as being unhittable.

And when he dealt with the flaws early, allowing a single to Derek Jeter on the first pitch, with no baseball pedigree to retire the side, Verlander rolled with it and rebounded. It’s one of the many reasons the Tigers are notoriously at a premium in Major League Baseball. No one ever doubted Verlander, but it’s indubitable he is ideally the untouchable ace in the fall and has beaten the Yankees.

There is, however, enough evidence to pinpoint that Verlander is exactly what baseball needs for a remedy, to finally jettison the fraud of poisoning baseball. So now, as the Tigers lead the best-of-five series 2-1 on the verge of dispatching the Yankees from the postseason, the storyline has been specifically on Verlander after throwing strikes in a 5-4 win in Game 3 on Monday night.

This was supposed to happen. This was not supposed to happen or what the Yankees had in mind, though, trailing the series with their season on the line. It doesn't seem to be getting better for the Yanks when manager Joe Girardi will hand the ball to A.J. Burnett for Game 4.

Really?

From the sound of this, the Yankees couldn't care less whether or not they lose, handing the ball to their worst pitcher in the lineup. The Yankees honestly believe they can pull it off with the lousy Burnett as the probable starter in the elimination game. Are the Yankees out of their damn minds? What is the franchise thinking?

But it is more than important to give credit where credit is due, and in reality, it is the Tigers, especially Verlander who potentially may have just won the series for Detroit. It has become known, with all the implications involved and when much is at stake for the right-hander, that Verlander capitalizes when it counts and certainly is cheered for delivering the hard-throwing fastball with every fiber in his vigorous arm.

So although he is dazzling, in the postseason from a far, Verlander, who has 24 wins and the pitching Triple Crown, is in pursuit to win the Cy Young award and could be named the MVP this year, the accolades won't be praiseworthy if the Tigers lose in the ALDS against the Yankees. It was only a matter of time that Verlander would take control in the second and breeze through the middle innings against one of the game's powerful lineups.

The obvious was that nothing was intriguing about the pitching duel, with CC Sabathia getting bullied by the Tigers, all while Verlander stunningly surrendered two runs that changed the dynamic of the game and quickly wiped away a 4-2 Detroit lead. Just like that, faster than Verlander's velocity, the Yankees tied it 4-4.

It was tense, giving Detroit fans the jitters, and even Leyland stood in the dugout nervously. Just as much as Lancelot gave loyalty to King Arthur, local fans in the stands believed in Verlander, a pitcher the team depends on greatly -- as, I presume, he elevates his intensity from the crowd. He has all the mechanics to be a legend, and he is recognized and simply peerless.

What fun to watch Verlander. He is easily, despite the ineffective pitching early on in the postseason, hitting 100 or 101 mph and reached it 15 times during the eighth-inning. But with two outs, he walked Jorge Posada and then hit Russell Martin in the ribs with a fastball.

Because he was a bit out of sync in the inning the Yankees scored two runs and tied it, but Delmon Young smashed a home run in the bottom of the seventh to erupt frenzy in the crowd. Leyland was confident in Verlander by staying with his ace for another inning. The plan was for him not to allow runners to score, and he certainly stopped it from happening by throwing fastballs to Alex Rodriguez on five pitches during the at-bat.

That's a good way to bounce back from Friday's poor performance. He was that good. In fact, he was unhittable from the second through the sixth, and thought he would attack the zone by releasing his fastballs and his curve balls that arched like a rainbow.

Falling in love with his fastballs, the motion he tends to go with frequently, the Yankees weren't hoping for Verlander to pull the string on his changeups but he certainly exercise the off-speed pitch.

And as a result, he fanned four in a row in the fourth and fifth that capped a ravishing night in the homeland of the Motor City.