By Morris Phillips
Justin Verlander was so good Thursday, it didn’t matter that he repeatedly challenged Oakland hitters with fastballs that they normally salivate over. The A’s were so concerned with Verlander’s other pitches—particularly his curve which baffled them in Game 2–they were mental messes, guessing, wailing but ultimately whiffing.
The team that built their late-season surge on big swings, big results was well on their way to the off-season in great part due to managing just one base hit in the first seven innings against their nemesis reborn in Verlander.
How good was Verlander? Historically good.
Verlander stopped the A’s dead in their tracks in last year’s Game 5, throwing 122 pitches, striking out 11 and pitching a complete game shutout. On Saturday night, in Game 2, he was dazzling again, shutting the A’s down for seven innings while surrendering just four disjointed base hits.
But on Thursday, he was even better, commanding four pitches and making the A’s look foolish. The big righthander saw the A’s swing and miss 24 times, as the stubborn Oakland hitters refused to jump out of character, hoping to catch one of the heaters and send it a long way.
But the long balls never materialized. Hits were hard enough to come by and trying to figure out Verlander was next was impossible. Detroit manager Jim Leyland described it succinctly.
“He was locked in tonight,” Leyland said. “He used the fastball a lot tonight and when you got that fastball, he’s got three well-above average Major League pitches and another one that’s at least average and maybe a little bit better. When you’ve got four pitches above average and a couple of them really above average, you can shut down a lot of teams.”
Verlander’s pitched 30 innings against the A’s in post-season now and not surrendered a run. That’s a new Major League record, one that hasn’t been messed with since 1911. Christy Mathewson threw 28 scoreless, post-season innings against the A’s back then over a period of seven seasons.
“We weren’t getting very good swings on him,” A’s manager Bob Melvin admitted. “I thought maybe when it started to get darker, we would get better swings, but he kept throwing fastballs. I haven’t seen the video to see if he was on the corners all night.”
If Verlander wasn’t on the corners, he was conveniently off the corners. Throughout his command was flawless and his location as well. That the A’s had to wait nearly seven innings just to get a hit says it all. Once all that’s digested, it’s nearly impossible to comprehend that the six-time All-Star had an off-season, struggling with his command and his velocity while his ERA hit nearly 5.00 from May through August.
All the problems ceased in September. Verlander finished the season with a 2.27 ERA over his final six starts and his confidence soared.
“I’m pitching the way I’m supposed to,” Verlander said. “I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year.”
“He’s getting downhill now,” Leyland chimed in. “He’s gotten mechanically back in sync, got all his pitches.”
And once Verlander steadied, the A’s presented themselves as Detroit’s first playoff opponent. It was a match made in historical heaven.
The A’s struck out 57 times in the series, which set a new LDS record, breaking the record established by the Rangers in 2010 when they struck out 55 times against the Rays. Verlander accounted for 21 of the 57, all at the Coliseum, the biggest enthusiasm and rally killer imaginable.
Give Verlander the ball in a series clincher? That’s an obvious. The 6’5” starter joined Sandy Koufax as the only starters to throw consecutive, 10 strikeout, shut out performances in the post-season. Koufax—arguably the greatest pitcher ever—built his reputation in 1965 when he accomplished the feat by shutting down the Dodgers in Game 5, and then again in Game 7.
The A’s established a more dubious record for getting stopped cold in the ALDS for the second straight season. Oakland’s 0-6 in the Divison series when it goes the full five games and that’s something they can’t do anything about for a long time, at least not before next October.