Even while not at his best, Verlander dominates
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander is so poised and so confident and so utterly dominant at the moment that even on a night like this one, a night when he struggled with his command and his rhythm, a night when he actually gave up an earned run, he still did what the Detroit Tigers have come to believe he'll do almost every time he takes the ball.
He put the Tigers on his shoulders and carried them to within one victory of their fourth American League pennant in the last 67 years. They're close now, close enough to taste it and feel it, close enough to know the adrenaline will be churning when they show up for what could be the clincher Wednesday night at Comerica Park.
They beat the Yankees again, this time, 2-1, on Tuesday night and lead the best-of-seven AL Championship Series 3-0. When Tigers manager Jim Leyland came out to get Verlander with one out in the top of the ninth, a sellout crowd of 42,970 at Comerica Park responded with a huge ovation, the kind he's sure to remember for the rest of his life.
For the Tigers, the challenge now is to stay the course, to not look too far ahead, to not see Game 4 on Wednesday as anything other than the usual stuff, as anything more than another day at the office.
"They are the New York Yankees," Leyland said. "They are a great team. We put ourselves in a decent position, but that's all we have done."
That was the message in every corner of their clubhouse. The Tigers understand they're in in a good place, but they've won nothing. They repeated the cliche about playing one game at a time, but that's exactly how they finally caught the White Sox in September and that's how they got past the A's last week.
They still respect the Yankees regardless of the slumps or injuries or any of the rest. They're going to take nothing for granted.
"Hopefully, we can come in tomorrow focused on what we have to do to win," third baseman Miguel Cabrera said. "The Yankees are a tough team. We'll see what happens. We just have to play our game."
STARTERS EARN PLACE IN HISTORYLongest postseason stretches without an earned run allowed by starting pitchers
Every so often, we get really lucky to be able to watch someone who is at the absolute top of his craft. Verlander is so good right now that he has three different pitches that are among the best in baseball, and at times, he simply seems to be toying with hitters.
One time, he's pumping 97-mph gas in on a hitter's hands, and just when the guy convinces himself he has to speed everything up to look for the fastball, just when he's tensed and ready for power, Verlander mixes in an 86-mph changeup that makes him look silly.
Usually around the second time through the order, Verlander will mix in a curveball that's so hard and so sharp that Tigers catcher Alex Avila said just learning to catch it was the toughest part of working with Verlander.
For eight innings on Tuesday, he didn't allow a Yankees player to reach scoring position and extended his postseason shutout streak to 23 innings before Eduardo Nunez led off the ninth inning with a home run.
By that time, Verlander's pitch count was at 124, and when Leyland came to the mound, he asked if he could get Yankees leadoff hitter Brett Gardner. Verlander nodded, and Leylander said that would be that.
He allowed three hits in 8 1/3 innings, walked none and struck out only three. He fell behind in the count more than usual and was forced to throw more pitches in the middle of the plate.
"That tells you a lot about his stuff," Avila said, "and it tells you how hard it is to hit. It's extremely difficult to hit a baseball. When you've got a guy throwing it as hard as he does with movement, and the array of pitches, times it by 10."
The Tigers didn't get much offense, seven hits in all, but two runs were enough with Verlander controlling the game. Detroit's starters had a 37 2/3-innings shutout streak snapped when Nunez homered. Verlander said Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are feeding off each other, making one another better.
"I think pitching is contagious, just like hitting is," Verlander said. "And, you know, we are all competitive guys. We wouldn't be at this level if we weren't. You see somebody go out there and have a good game, and you want to one-up that guy. He is your friend, I know, but it still gives you the urge to go out there and do better. And I think that's a great thing when you can get your entire rotation doing that. And I think we're starting to click at the right time."
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.