Greatness unchallenged is never quite as great.
Borg had McEnroe. Bobby Fischer had Boris Spassky. Seabiscuit had War Admiral. Ali had Frazier. Bird had Magic.
To turn our attention to the National Pastime: Mays competed for the bright lights of New York with Mantle. The best athletes elevate their game to an heightened level when they square off with their equals. As a result, they become legends. There are two pitchers in their prime today who are trying to follow that path.
In the long history of baseball there have been surprisingly few times when two pitchers have came up at the same time and battled each other as the two best in their league for a length of time. Justin Verlander of the Tigers and Jered Weaver of the Angels are both 29, born less than four months apart, and were both drafted in the first round of the 2004 draft.
Last week, Weaver threw a no-hitter, his first. Verlander has thrown two-no-hitters and has no-hit stuff on a regular basis. With both pitchers signed to long-term deals (Weaver through 2016 and Verlander through 2014), the prospects are good that the two will be competing with each other for supremacy for many years to come.
Verlander was the 2nd selection in that ’04 draft, Weaver went at #12. Verlander, though the younger of the two, made his way to the big leagues quicker, getting his first taste of The Show in 2005. By 2006 he was in the Detroit rotation, and that year he became one of the few pitchers to start a World Series game as a rookie. Weaver debuted in May of ’06, ironically to replace his injured brother (Jeff, a former Tiger) in the Angels rotation. Like Verlander, Weaver made a splash as a rookie: he won his first nine decisions and went 11-2. Verlander won 17 games and was named Rookie of the Year, Weaver finished fifth in voting. Ever since, the two tall right-handers (JW is 6’7 and wiry and JV is 6’5 with strong, muscular legs) have had a friendly rivalry.
Last season though, it turned a bit heated. On July 31, the aces squared off in a match-up in Detroit. Verlander came in at 14-5, while Weaver’s record was 14-4. They were the two clear favorites in the Cy Young race. Verlander was in top form, retiring the first 11 batters of the game before surrendering a walk in the fourth. Weaver was also dealing that afternoon, but in the third he allowed a home run to Magglio Ordonez, a ball that hooked around the foul pole in left field. Ordonez stood at the plate, waiting to see if the ball was fair or foul, and Weaver took umbrage with what he thought was showboating by the veteran. In the sixth inning, trailing 2-0 and with his team still hitless against Verlander, Weaver fired a fastball that he intended to be down and in on Carlos Guillen. Instead the ball was up a little too much and Guillen turned on it, sending it into the right field bleachers. Guillen, a close friend of Ordonez, posed at home plate and watched the flight of the ball as it went out. He looked at Weaver, as if to say, “Oh yes, I did.” Weaver predictably blew up and had to be restrained, but not before he was tossed from the game. Leading off the 8th inning for the Halos, Erick Aybar laid down a bunt, and beat it out at first base as Verlander tossed the ball wide of the bag. The Tiger pitcher was given an error, preserving the no-hitter, but the fact that Aybar had tried to bunt when there was a no-hit game in process was surprising. It’s an unwritten rule that when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter the opposing team has to “earn” the first hit, not attempt a bunt. A visibly irked Verlander ended up giving up a hit later that inning and left the game after eight innings. He got the win and never lost again in the regular season, eventually winning the Cy Young and MVP Award. Weaver finished second in Cy Young voting, and second in ERA to Verlander.
What did JV think of the bunt attempt to break up his no-hitter? “Very surprised. It’s a three-run game. It’s a close game. There’s arguments both ways, but obviously from a pitching standpoint, we like to call it Bush League,” Verlander said.
The Tigers and Angels will meet for the first time in 2012 for a four-game series in Detroit in July that should feature both Verlander and Weaver, hopefully on the same day. And of the two aces meet each other during an early September three-game set in Los Angeles, it could help determine the Cy Young Award winner again.
More than 65 years ago the Tigers had the best pitcher in baseball in their rotation – southpaw Hal Newhouser. “The Prince” won the MVP Award in consecutive seasons in 1944-45. The Cleveland Indians were led by fireballing right-hander Bob Feller. Unquestionably the best pitcher of his era, “Bullet Bob” threw three no-hitters armed with a 100-MPH fastball. Verlander frequently tops the 100-MPH mark, often throwing his fastest pitch in his last inning. Like Newhouser and Feller (both Hall of Famers), Verlander and Weaver thrive on the competition of testing themselves against the best. Newhouser and Feller faced off 39 times, Newhouser edging out Feller, 20-17 with two no-decisions. In the six seasons they’ve been in the league together, Verlander and Weaver have met each other five times, Verlander holding the edge, 3-2.
Given their talent and thirst for greatness, Verlander and Weaver will surely square off many more times, possibly even in the post-season, as each of their teams are favored to win their division. But no matter where they meet, the two will step up their game when they face each other. One of them will probably end up on the losing side, but the real winner each time these aces face each other are the fans.