What's wrong with Justin Verlander? Detroit Tigers fans asked that about their ace all season long. What's wrong with Justin Verlander?
During the regular season. Verlander wasn't the pitcher we'd become accustomed to seeing over the past four years. He finished with a 13-12 record and 3.46 ERA. His strikeout rate dipped to 8.9 per nine innings. Those were his worst marks in five seasons — or since he became "Must See JV," as fans throughout baseball call it when he starts.
Verlander insisted he was fine. He just needed to find his arm slot, get his mechanics back in sync. Meanwhile, Tigers fans were fretting over which Verlander they'd see in October. Would it be the Cy Young Award winner and MVP, capable of throwing a no-hitter every time he took the mound? Or would each outing be a struggle and a grind, as it seemed to be throughout the season?
What's wrong with Justin Verlander? Absolutely nothing. Ask the Oakland Athletics, who managed only two hits and struck out 10 times against him in eight innings on their way to a 3-0 loss on Thursday night at O.co Coliseum. The Tigers won the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS and advance to play the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS beginning Saturday.
Verlander had a perfect game going until one out in the fifth inning, when he walked Josh Reddick after getting ahead of him with a zero-balls, two-strikes count. He carried a no-hitter to two outs in the seventh, until Yoenis Cespedes broke it up with a single up the middle. The Tigers ace pitched through the eighth, allowing only a single by Reddick before turning the game over to closer Joaquin Benoit.
Benoit kept the A's alive in the ninth, allowing a double to Jed Lowrie and hitting Cespedes with a pitch to bring the tying run to the plate. But he got Seth Smith to fly out to right field to close out the game and clinch the series for Detroit.
Verlander also pitched excellently against the A's in Game 2 of the series. He threw seven scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts, allowing four hits. But rookie Sonny Gray was able to match and eventually outduel his veteran opponent, allowing just four hits over eight shutout innings with nine strikeouts. A's manager Bob Melvin was hoping for that success to continue, deciding Wednesday to give Gray the Game 5 start over Bartolo Colon, who was tagged for three runs and 10 hits by the Tigers in Game 1.
Gray looked like he was ready for another pitcher's duel, matching Verlander by not allowing a hit in his first three innings. Unlike his Game 2 performance, however, Gray had trouble throwing his curveball effectively and that allowed Tigers batters to sit on his fastball. The rookie compounded that by leaving a fastball high and inside that Miguel Cabrera turned on for a two-run homer to give Detroit a 2-0 lead.
The Tigers third baseman and likely AL MVP looked powerless and feeble for most of the series due to abdominal and groin injuries that prevented him from using his legs to drive the ball. But Gray gave him a pitch that he could turn and muscle out of the ballpark mostly with his arms. With the way Verlander was pitching, that was effectively the only offense that Detroit needed.
Gray lasted only five innings, pulled from the game after giving up singles to Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta to lead off the sixth. Martinez eventually scored on a groundball by Omar Infante, extending the Tigers' lead to 3-0. Overall, Gray allowed three runs with six hits and four walks. The San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser reported after the game that Gray suffered a broken thumb on his left, non-pitching hand due to a Prince Fielder grounder hit back to the pitcher in the fifth.
Game 1 of the ALCS will be played Saturday at Fenway Park in Boston. First pitch is scheduled for 8:07 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on FOX. (American League fans complaining about the TBS announcing crew now get a respite for the rest of the postseason.) The Red Sox are expected to open the series with Jon Lester on the mound. Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after the ALDS clincher that he's leaning toward giving Anibal Sanchez the start for Detroit.
If Leyland follows Sanchez with Max Scherzer in Game 2, Verlander in Game 3 and Doug Fister in Game 4, that would put Verlander in position to pitch a possible Game 7 for the Tigers. It might be in the Red Sox's best interest to try and win the series before it comes to that.