DETROIT — It was early May, and the Detroit Tigers were struggling a bit. They were below .500, several games behind in the American League Central. For a team that hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2006, pressure was mounting.
Then Justin Verlander became nearly unbeatable.
The Tigers ended up winning the division in a runaway, and it was Verlander who helped them back into contention after that tepid start. The 28-year-old right-hander wrapped up his regular season last weekend, submitting the following numbers for Cy Young and even MVP consideration: a 24-5 record, a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts.
Since his no-hitter at Toronto on May 7 — a performance that was more of a prologue than a peak — Verlander is 22-2. When the playoffs start this week, he’ll have center stage as baseball’s new star, testing himself in the postseason spotlight with the likes of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Philadelphia’s stellar starting rotation.
“The guy is a true ace,” said Cleveland manager Manny Acta, whose Indians led the AL Central early on before Verlander and the Tigers made their move. “It’s a guy that’s going to be out there minimum seven innings because he can throw 120, 130 pitches without losing any of his fastball or any of his pitches. There’s no advice — you’ve got your work cut out, regardless of who you are or how tough your lineup is.”
When the Angels scratched Jered Weaver from his final start of the season, it all but wrapped up a pitching triple crown for Verlander, the AL leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts. Look beyond those traditional stats, and the picture is no less impressive. Opponents hit .192 against Verlander. He’s also pitched a league-leading 251 innings, lasting at least six innings and 100 pitches in every one of his 34 starts.
“That’s the definition of a horse,” manager Jim Leyland said.
Leyland was particularly impressed with his ace on Saturday. After winning 12 consecutive starts, Verlander took the mound for the final time in the regular season, trying to become the first pitcher since 1990 to reach 25 wins.
After allowing five runs to Baltimore in an uncharacteristically shaky first three innings, Verlander didn’t allow another baserunner until the seventh. The Tigers lost the game, but Verlander gave his team a chance to come back and extended that streak of six-inning starts, which began last August.
“That’s not something that’s a goal, but to be able to do that, I think is pretty unique,” Verlander said. “I’m glad I was able to give guys a rest on my day.”
It seems like a foregone conclusion that Verlander will win the AL Cy Young Award. The question is whether he’ll be the Most Valuable Player too. No starting pitcher has won that honor since Roger Clemens in 1986.
That year, Clemens went 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts, statistics awfully similar to Verlander’s.
A perfectionist on the mound with a jumpy personality, Verlander takes pride in everything he’s accomplished this year, including some less glamorous areas of improvement. For example, despite reaching a career high in innings, Verlander walked only 57 hitters, his lowest total for a full season.
“That’s why I think you see the rest of the numbers improved upon,” he said. “That comes with better control and all that. Balls hit in play that aren’t hit as sharply because I’m hitting my corners — just little things like that.”
That improved control — plus a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame — made Verlander a tough pitcher to wear down. Even if the opposition makes him throw a lot of pitches early, all he needs is a few quick outs. Then he’ll be right there in the late innings again, reaching triple digits on the radar gun.
“He’s not a guy that at 100 (pitches) he loses his effectiveness. He’s going to be out there for 130 if he has to,” Acta said. “He’s one of those rare cases. He’s just a terrific pitcher.”
As sensational as Verlander’s season has been, it’s all in the past now. His only other postseason appearance came in 2006, and Verlander, running out of steam at the end of his first full season in the big leagues, wasn’t at his best.
He’s hoping for a better performance this time. He feels stronger physically, and there’s certainly no sign of any letdown. The only differences between Verlander’s next start and all his previous trips to the mound this year are the stakes and the level of competition. If he pitches the way he’s capable, Detroit will be tough to beat.
If there’s one player in baseball who doesn’t need to change anything, it’s Verlander.
“I’m trying to keep it as normal as possible. I’m trying to treat this like we’re just rolling into another regular-season start,” Verlander said. “I know once it gets close I’m going to get a little more excited. I’m just trying to stay in my routine so that everything is similar.”