We’ve assembled some of our favorite baseball writers from around the country to contribute to Sports on Earth each day throughout the postseason.
Justin Verlander was so good last season that he not only won the American League Cy Young Award but also the MVP. And, outside of his won-loss record this season (17-8), his numbers are strong enough to merit another Cy. He is the rare modern player who works deep into games, pitch count be damned.
The only thing missing from Verlander’s résumé is postseason dominance. Before the Tigers’ 3-1 win over Oakland in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Saturday, Verlander was 3-3 in eight October starts with a 5.57 ERA. In three Game 1 starts, he was 0-2, the Tigers 0-3.
This spring, in a profile for Men’s Journal, Verlander explained his postseason difficulties to veteran journalist Pat Jordan: “Last year it was just my timing. The rain delays. I wasn’t locating the ball. The delays got me out of rhythm.”
Jordan noted that Verlander seemed “disturbed by the question and, for the first time all day, unsure of himself.”
Jordan continued: "I press him about 2006. ‘Oh, my arm was dead. I had nothing left at the end of the season.’ He’s quiet for a moment, and then adds, ‘In the postseason, the batters are more focused in a short series, jacked up, but pitchers … well, pitchers have to fight getting jacked up. It throws their timing off.’ I ask if his legacy will be diminished by his postseason performances so far. He says, ‘Hopefully, I’ll have a lot more time. I think about that.’”
Coco Crisp, the A’s leadoff hitter who rests his chin on his right shoulder when he’s batting, like a bulldog leaning his chin on the kitchen counter, hoping for scraps, started the game by turning on a Verlander fastball and knocking it over the right-field fence. For the next hour, Oakland’s plan to work Verlander over appeared to be working -- he had thrown 61 pitches by the end of three innings, 90 by the end of the fifth. Verlander walked three, gave up a few hits, but the A’s couldn’t get a big blow.
Meanwhile, his teammates cobbled together a couple of runs: Miguel Cabrera hit into a double play with runners on first and third in the first inning, scoring Austin Jackson, and Omar Infante came around from second on a Jarrod Parker error in the third. And it was Verlander, wearing a huge smile, who greeted Alex Avila in the dugout in the fifth after his catcher led off the inning with an opposite-field home run.
Then Verlander, as is his wont, got scary. He struck out the side in the sixth, and the first two men in the seventh, primarily by using his changeup early in the count and then blowing batters away with the hard stuff -- 96, 97, 98 mph.
Oakland’s hitters had reason to beef with some of the calls that Verlander got from home plate umpire Jim Reynolds. It’s hard enough to hit this dude without you helping him out, you could imagine them saying. But part of the Numero Uno Ace Pitcher Benefit Package is that you get the close ones.
After a two-out walk in the seventh, Verlander got Crisp to ground out to end the inning. It was the worst swing Crisp had all night.
Verlander’s final line: seven innings, one run on three hits, four walks and 11 strikeouts. It was the finest postseason performance of his career.
The Tigers put runners on first and second in the bottom of the inning, chasing Parker from the game. He was replaced by Pat Neshek, the side-arming righty who took the field just three days after his infant son, Gehrig, died. Neshek told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that his one day with his son, who died less than 23 hours after birth, “was probably the best day I've ever had. I'd go through it all again for that one day.” He said he could now imagine what hell was like. His wife Stephanee urged him to rejoin the team, and so here he was, in the playoffs.
Neshek got a ground-ball forceout and then struck out Austin Jackson. As he jogged off the field, Neshek exhaled and patted the honorary patch for Gehrig that all the A’s were wearing on their right sleeves. After the commercial break, the TV cameras showed him sitting in the dugout. His teammate Jonny Gomes shook his hand and hugged him.
It’s striking how lonely a baseball dugout can be for a player. We are always reminded that when players fail they are utterly alone, even when surrounded by their teammates. Nobody talks to them. Watching Neshek sitting just a few feet from another player produced chills, knowing that his isolation was far more profound than any performance on the ball field.
Meanwhile, Verlander’s night was done and Joaquin Benoit allowed a one-out single to Yoenis Cespedes. Brandon Moss had struck out three times against Verlander, but he hacked at the first pitch he saw from Benoit, a change-up that hung right over the middle of the plate. The ball went high in the air toward right field and, for a few seconds, Comerica Park held its collective breath. In some ballparks, this one had the distance to tie the game, but in Detroit it landed safely in Andy Dirk’s glove. The right fielder’s heel was pressed up against the wall, just to the left of the 365-foot mark. The crowd aaah’d and Moss grimaced, having just missed it.
But that’s how it goes for the A’s. They hit home runs and they strike out. On Saturday, they whiffed 14 times and hit one home run.
The Detroit fans were cautious when closer Jose Valverde entered the game in the ninth. They’re used to him being dramatic in every way -- in his delivery, his reactions to outs, and his habit of getting into and out of trouble.
But the flamboyant reliever made it easy on them tonight. Got a strike out, jumping back like James Brown (want to kiss myself) after each swing and a miss. Came back with another punchout and, after strike three, gave a little slide step to the left of the mound.
The crowd stood, waving white towels, urging on another K. They got a pop-out to Fielder instead. But their ace had finally pitched the playoff game that they knew he was capable of, and no one seemed to mind.