Is Verlander one of the all-time greats? Game Five is his chance to answer that


Justin Verlander has not allowed a run to the Oakland A’s in his last 22 innings against them in the postseason.

Tonight Justin Verlander will make his 14th postseason start, more than any other pitcher in the history of the Detroit Tigers.

Verlander won’t be nervous, he won’t be intimidated by the big stage, and he won’t shrink from the pressure. He’s been here before. As a 23-year old rookie, he started Game One of the World Series in 2006. In the last three seasons, JV has toed the rubber nine times, including a Game Five last season in Oakland under similar circumstances. In that game last October, Verlander had what Jim Leyland called “that look,” and he took it with him to the mound for all nine innings, all 27 outs, as he shut out the Oakland A’s on their field to silence their raucous crowd.

He’ll have to do it again, and I like his chances to do so.

After a strange season where he started well before experiencing a rocky stretch in the middle of the season through August, Verlander seems to have finally figured things out. There was a long stretch this seasons where Verlander’s fastball lacked the zip we’re accustomed to. The radar guns read 93, 92, 91. Gone were the 97-98-99’s we had taken for granted when JV needed them. For two full seasons, Verlander had been nearly untouchable, flirting with no-hitters like they were easy. Making batters look foolish with his curveball as well as his heater. He was locked in the zone for about 70 starts. It was an amazing ride, but one that couldn’t last. Still, when Verlander was un-Verlander like in so many starts in July and August, it was jarring. As if the sun started coming up in the west, rivers flowed backwards, and Jeff Foxworthy started to be funny. It didn’t make sense.

Verlander struggled to explain it, and after a while, it left Leyland nonplussed. The Tiger skipper simply said, “He has to figure it out.”

On September 1, the former Cy Young winner shut out the Indians through seven innings, but the Tigers lost the game and JV had a no-decision. In his next three starts, he was inconsistent, winning one and losing two. Then, on September 23, with the postseason looming, Verlander found something he had been missing. With help from pitching coach Jeff Jones and hours squinting at video, Verlander recognized that his left leg, his plant leg, was not rigid enough when he drove to the plate. He needed to shorten the bend of that front leg. Unless he did, his arm would not be in the correct position when he delivered the ball.

In his start that night in Minnesota, Verlander struck out 12 batters in just six innings. It was just his third start with double-digit K’s all season. He blanked the Twins, though he got another no-decision. Five days later he tossed six more shutout innings, allowing only three hits while fanning 10. It was pretty much lost however, when rookie Henderson Alvarez no-hit Detroit. In his first start this series, last Saturday in Oakland, JV exerted his dominance over the Athletics once again. He really has mastered the A’s lineup for the last two seasons. In Game Two, Verlander went seven shutout innings, struck out 11, and allowed just five baserunners. Oakland hitters were no match for JV. In fact, over his last four starts against the A’s in the LDS (dating back to 2012), Verlander has fired 22 straight shutout innings. Over that span, the tall Virginian has surrendered just 11 hits while striking out 33 batters. That. Is. Dominant.

With 19 shutout innings in his last three starts (and 33 K’s), Verlander is every bit as good as he was in 2011, when he was named the MVP of the entire league. He’s been here before – with the ball in his hand when his team needed him to carry them in a must-win game. This time, his team is in an offensive funk that’s a mystery. Who knows if the eight-run explosion in Game Four back in Detroit on Tuesday will carry over into tonight’s game? We can’t count on it. For that reason, we have to count on JV.

When it’s all said and done, Verlander will be known as one of the best pitchers of this era. Not many hurlers win an MVP award, toss more than one no-hitter, and consistently finish among the top 2-3 in K’s, ERA, and wins year after year. Verlander may have a quirky season here and there like he did in ’13, but it’s quirky mostly because we expect him to win almost all of the time. No, Verlander is not perfect, but he is one of the greatest to ever throw off the mound for the Detroit Tigers. Now, once again in a must-win game, he’s being asked to be the ace. His place in history will in large part be determined by how he does in situations like this, when he is needed most to push his team a step closer to a championship.

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