OAKLAND, Calif. — Justin Verlander tried not to embrace the label too tightly, but he could muster only so much restraint.
“‘Big-game pitcher,’ that’s something people want to talk about,” he said Thursday night, when a reporter asked whether Verlander now saw himself as worthy of the designation. “…Obviously, it’s something you dream about as a kid. It’s win or go home, you visualize that when you’re 10 years old in your backyard. Game 5, Game 7, gotta win. It’s pretty exciting to have gone out there twice in that scenario and done a good job.”
After thoroughly suffocating the A’s in an ALDS elimination game for the second straight year, two things stopped Verlander from claiming a place in the postseason pantheon: requisite modesty and ruthless honesty. In some of the biggest games of all, he has turned up in miniature, if not caricature.
His lone World Series start last season devolved quickly from an off-night into sketch comedy. He knew it then. He knows it now. The takeaway image of him uttering ‘’Wow” as he watched the flight of Pablo Sandoval’s second home run captured a superstar’s brand of humility — thin wrapping around a stout core of fully warranted ego. If you can do that to me, I’m obliged to be amazed.
The moment should have been an unrivaled depiction of the fiasco, but a nearly scene-stealing warm-up act preceded it. Jeff Jones, the Tigers’ pitching coach, went out for a visit to the mound, where a smirking Verlander greeted him with: “What are you doing out here?” On the next pitch, Sandoval’s swat elicited the “Wow.”
The Associated Press story from that game carried the headline: “Verlander once again struggles in World Series.” He has an 0-3 record in the Series, and not because wins and losses thoroughly fail to reflect a pitcher’s performance. He committed an error in both of his two starts in 2006, his rookie year, and gave up 10 runs altogether, 7 of them earned. (Allowing a pitcher to skirt responsibility for a run generated by an error of his own making is one of the underrated absurdities of baseball’s traditional stats.)
Reasonable souls can summon all sorts of excuses: the small sample size, down time between the LCS and the World Series, and the fact that he lost the first two at 23. But Verlander knows who he is, what is expected of him, and why even the most thoughtfully rendered explanations are beneath him. He is supposed to do what he did Thursday night — threaten to throw the third postseason no-hitter in MLB history — because he is Justin Verlander.
For a while this summer, he wasn’t himself. His fastball dipped by a few miles per hour, shifting his ace’s slot into Max Scherzer’s hands, raising whispery doubts about a descent into relative ordinariness at age 30. A robust September and his two playoff starts against the A’s have shut down that speculation, but the aberrant period serves as a reminder that he is 30, pressing closer to a sell-by date that no one ever stamps on the packaging. He has surely become more conscious that playoff seasons cannot be taken for granted and that this business could deny him a championship ring.
He already has two no-hitters to his name, and he contorted the A’s and exploited their long swings so shrewdly that a third seemed very possible. But Verlander knew that his six-inning bid in Game 5 amounted to a luxury, almost beside the point.
“Yeah, there were thoughts of a no-hitter,” he said. “I shoved those to the back of my mind. I think you see guys have no-hitters late in a game and give up a hit and the wheels kind of fall off. … I would have liked to have thrown a no-hitter and it was in the back of my mind, but you can’t let that happen in this scenario. The game is too big.”
The Red Sox await now, for the Tigers’ third straight ALCS appearance. Verlander will not pitch until at least Game 3, and then perhaps Game 7, and baseball fans can only hope that this series lasts that long. The teams, in theory, are evenly matched enough to make it happen, as are the pair in the NLCS.
Yet theory took a World Series whooping last year from Sandoval. When Verlander exited after just four innings in Game 1, he had to believe that he’d see the Giants again in a few days, and have another big-game shot. But he’d set the Tigers up to be swept. That’s the harshest, most unfair, way to say it. Others failed, in abundance. Verlander didn’t lose the three other games.
But he’s the only active pitcher to win an MVP award. He’s the most feared starter in the sport. He has the extravagant talent to match the dreams of his 10-year-old self in the backyard. Those dreams, you can bet, did not end in mid-October with the sound of a reporter’s voice calling him a “big-game pitcher.”