A Giants team no one has been able to put away this year is meeting a pitcher no one has been able to hit in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night.
It brings up the age-old question: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
Most bets are on Justin Verlander, the Detroit pitcher who is throwing the best he ever has and is hungry to finally get a championship six years after his first chance.
But people are also wary of counting out the Giants, who have overcome just about everything a team could deal with this season. First, the team worked past the fade of two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. Then it was the suspension of leading hitter Melky Cabrera. Add in a fight for the National League West crown, the Giants coming back from an 0-2 deficit to the Reds in the National League Division Series (with their final three wins all on the road), and San Francisco was primed for the greatest triumph -- this week's comeback from a 3-1 deficit in NLCS, where the Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1 in the final three games to advance to the World Series.
On Wednesday night, Verlander will get a chance to begin adding the truly legitimate hardware of titles and World Series moments to his impressive pitching resume. After failing to win it all in his first go-around, the 2006 World Series (just his first full year in the majors), he'll be expected to bring his Cy Young and MVP form to the mound and make it happen for the Tigers this time.
The Giants will present a unique test -- likely down to the final pitch. That's why Verlander will need to be the one who sets the tone not only in Game 1 but also for Detroit's entire pitching performance, which will be the difference-maker in this World Series.
Verlander came into this year having won both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards last season, and many people put him in the conversation for the 2012 Cy Young, too. But Verlander wasn't quite at his 2011 form this year. He had some bad losses and shorter outings, although he pitched well enough that his stats eventually fell into line with the Verlander numbers everyone is used to seeing.
What made the difference was when Verlander was his best. Much like the hard-throwing righty is known to save his 100-mph fastballs and sharpest pitches for late in games, when he can use the added speed and guile to knock out an opponent's batting order the third or fourth time through, Verlander had his best form late this year.
Over his last seven starts, Verlander has gone 7-0 with a 0.73 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings pitched. He allowed just 10 hits in the playoffs, including a complete game to eliminate Oakland in the ALDS and 8 1/3 innings to cut the legs out from under the Yankees one more time in the ALCS.
The Verlander of the 2006 World Series, where he was still learning the big leagues and how to approach hitters, had a horrid start. The Tigers lost Game 1 of that series 7-2, with Verlander giving up six earned runs in five innings. While Verlander gave up just one earned run in Game 5, St. Louis was rolling, and it won that game and the World Series.
Verlander is in a much different place coming into Wednesday night's opener, having not only years of experience now but also the unique ability among MLB pitchers to dictate games. He pitches as hard and as long as he wants, balancing his fastballs and pitch counts to put himself in the position to capitalize. By being able to pitch complete games and blow away hitters late in contests, Verlander has set himself up this year to be the perfect postseason pitcher -- and to ensure he won't struggle on the big stage again.
That ability, and the enhanced mental focus Verlander brings into the World Series, will be vital against the Giants. San Francisco's resiliency in keeping its season alive and battling back from deficits makes the Giants a hard opponent for anyone, but they're an especially tough matchup when it comes to Detroit for one key reason: defense.
Defense has been the Tigers' one major weak spot this season. Detroit has issues across the diamond at making routine plays, and it also has players like Miguel Cabrera, who moved to third base this year. Although Cabrera may not be error-prone at his new spot, he is still not adding range and extra ability at that position. The Tigers are at best adequate defensively. Basically, when teams start putting balls in play, Detroit could face more problems than the average team.
Whereas Detroit relied on strikeouts (50 against Oakland) and overreaching (the Yankees batted .157 with 5.5 hits a game in the ALCS), the Giants are more disciplined -- and able to just hit the ball. Well-placed line drives or grounders could create hits, and the Giants can take advantage of their ability to steal bases (they were second in the league this year) to rattle up pitchers like Detroit's Anibal Sanchez and get some misplays.
The good news for the Tigers is that they have a pitcher who is good at racking up strikeouts and pop-ups rather than line drives or grounders: Verlander. And that's why, for as good as Verlander can be in just getting Detroit a Game 1 win, he also has to set the tone for the series.
By going deep into the game, using his pitches well and attacking the Giants hitters in ways that won't put the game on the shoulders of the Tigers defense, Verlander can show the rest of the Detroit pitching staff how to take advantage in this series. Furthermore, by dominating the game and closing the door early on the Giants, Verlander can not only put his mark on the series but also give his team the edge.
Detroit has a solid pitching staff, but it will have its hardest test of the year against a San Francisco lineup that is deep and resilient. Finding a way to rely on the strength of the pitching -- and not put the game in the hands of the bullpen, or the weak defense -- will be a major factor in the series.
But the biggest key for the Tigers is the man who takes the mound on Wednesday night: The Tigers need four wins to take the series, but locking up Game 1 could be worth more than just one victory.