Verlander is gone and an era is over

There will be no statue. Records will not be broken. And Justin Verlander will no longer be in the clubhouse to show young pitchers how to be a successful big league pitcher.

The Tigers traded their longtime ace to the Houston Astros late Thursday night just before the clock struck midnight, ending his epic career with the franchise. The deal brings an abrupt halt to Verlander’s great career in Detroit, a career that placed him among the best pitchers to ever toe the rubber for the Tigers. It also signals the end of an era.

In 2004, the year the Tigers drafted Verlander out of Old Dominion, the franchise was coming off an embarrassing 119-loss season. A few years later they fired Alan Trammell and replaced him with crusty Jim Leyland, who put the cleanly-shaved rookie in his rotation in 2006. Verlander won 17 games, the Rookie of the Year Award, and started Game One of the World Series. Presto! The Tigers were back, and they stayed exciting and relevant for almost the entire time JV was “our guy” at the top of the rotation.

The tall righthander threw a no-hitter in his second full season, turning the trick in front of the hometown fans in Comerica Park. It was a magical night, an indication that “our guy” was special. He tossed another no-hitter in 2011, the year he won the Cy Young and MVP awards. That year and the next few, it seemed like Verlander might throw a no-hitter every time he toed the rubber. He had several near misses.

The joy of watching Verlander pursue a no-hitter was magical. Not since Nolan Ryan has a pitcher had the “stuff” on a regular basis that caused fans to count the hitless innings at the beginning of his starts. Once he got to the fifth inning, you could see Verlander go after it. His body language was confidence and dominance. He was “our guy” with no-hit stuff. Even when he lost a no-hitter (and he lost six after the seventh inning as a Tiger), we cheered because we knew he was that close to brilliance.

In 2012 Verlander manhandled the Athletics in Game Five of their playoff series, moving the team to the next round. He looked like a man pitching to boys. A year later in October, he did it again, shutting down the same team with an epic postseason performance. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Red Sox in the ALCS. He broke bats, he jammed people with his heavy fastball, he baffled hitters with his curve. For a few years he seemed as good as any pitcher ever has.

In some seasons he would struggle for a start or two. He was a notorious slow starter in April. But he was “our guy” and we knew he’d get on track. He always did.

Along the way, his smile and charm won over fans. He became a team leader, a good guy in the clubhouse, the face of the franchise. He started dating a supermodel. And still he pitched on, logging more innings and throwing more pitches than anyone else. He was a throwback to the days when pitchers finished what they started. The Tigers won four straight division titles, and while some of the cast was shuffled around a bit, Verlander was a staple: starting on opening day, pitching big games, striking out Royals, White Sox, Twins and Indians.

He steadily climbed his way up the franchise pitching lists, passing names like Denny McLain, Schoolboy Rowe, Dizzy Trout, and even Jack Morris. He won 183 games as a Tiger, the seventh most in history. He struck out more batters than everyone except Mickey Lolich. His two-no-hitters are matched only by Virgil Trucks.

But, like Morris, Verlander leaves the Tigers in the middle of his career. Morris left in 1991 season at the age of 35, coming off a disappointing season. Verlander leaves at 34, traded at the stroke of midnight while he is still one of the elite pitchers in the game.

Verlander is neither over-the-hill nor washed up. He’s not long-in-the-tooth, and he’s not in a decline phase. He’s not “overpaid” either, so let’s stop that nonsense. He led the league in strikeouts last season and he’s been vintage JV for much of the last two years. The Astros get a pitcher who can still dial his fastball up to the high 90s. A pitcher  who is still comfortable throwing as many as 120 pitches. A pitcher who knows how to set up hitters and make them look silly. In his last 46 starts for the Tigers, Verlander has allowed three runs or fewer in 40 of them. He’s still an ace.

Someday Verlander will probably end up with a plaque in Cooperstown, joining his idol Ryan. He’ll need 4-5 more years of great-to-good results to get there. He won’t get to 300 wins (no one does any more), but he could throw a third or maybe a fourth no-hitter, and he has an excellent chance to reach 3,000 strikeouts. If he pitches his new team deep into the postseason, that will help his legacy too.

I’m sure many Tiger fans will still be rooting for JV. But it hurts a lot that it’s not going to be for “our guy.”

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