Verlander Shows How Closing is Done

On Tuesday night Jim Leyland said the A’s played a perfect game in the 2-0 Oakland Game 3 win.

I’d submit that the Tigers returned the favor Thursday night in a game the was perhaps the most emphatic decisive game we’ve seen since Game 4 of the 2006 ALCS.

Wow.

I wasn’t sure what version of Justin Verlander we’d see in Game 5. Ends up we saw the model we hoped for: all business, dominant, explosive. A complete-game, four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts to boot.

How about Omar Infante with a two-for-three night and two runs scored — plus a stolen base. (!)

And Austin Jackson: two hits, two runs batted in and a pair of runs scored.

And wait, there’s more: Delmon Young showed up and drove in a run.

But the story of the night was Verlander. He threw 122 pitches, 88 for strikes and saw his ALDS ERA plummet to 0.56.

Awesome.

So now we wait for the winner of the Orioles and Yankees series.

I’m going to savor this win for a day or so. Then I’ll worry about the ALCS.

And if the Yankees and Orioles caught even a glimpse of the Tigers game, they’re no doubt worried about the prospect of facing Justin Verlander in the next week.

Random Thoughts Before Game 5

In no particular order:

  • From the what-if file: Imagine the added dimension a healthy and capable Daniel Schlereth would add to the Tigers bullpen.
  • Kevin Kennedy was asked what he’d do if the Tigers have a four-run lead going into the ninth and Justin Verlander at a 120 pitches. His answer? “I know what Jim will do … ” Kennedy said Leyland will likely go to his bullpen; it’s what he’s done all year. And that’s what makes us all so queasy.

The Tigers and Athletics will battle in the fifth and deciding game of the American League Division Series this evening at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It marks the eighth time in the club’s post-season history the Tigers have had a series go to the maximum number of games. Detroit has compiled a 3-4 record in the previous seven series. The Tigers won Game Seven of both the 1945 and 1968 World Series and Game Five of the 2011 American League Division Series, while the team suffered the loss in Game Seven of the 1909, 1934 and 1940 World Series and Game Five of the 1972 American League Championship Series. 

  • Everyone I talk to today tells me that I should feel great about Game 5 with Verlander on the mound. But why don’t I? It’s because my gut tells me he gets too amped up for these big starts and gets dinged for early runs – like Coco Crisp‘s leadoff homer in Game 1. So, here’s what the Game Notes say:

Verlander is making the 10th start of his post-season career this evening. In his previous nine starts, he is 4-3 with a 4.96 ERA (49.0IP/27ER) and 59 strikeouts. Verlander is 2-0 with a 3.65 ERA (12.1IP/5ER) and 17 strikeouts in two starts against the Athletics during his post-season career. 

Yeah, but … looking at his career numbers he’s given up 48 hits in those 49 innings. Plus 30 runs and 24 walks. And, before his Game 1 start last Saturday, his career ALDS ERA was over five. I’m not trying to be negative, only trying to express why I’m hesitant to crown him a true big-game pitcher yet. We’ll know better after tonight.

Finally, Happy Birthday, Dmitri YoungJeff Larish and Gregg Olson. Enjoy the game tonight, folks.

Making Sense of Game 4

Now that I’ve had a chance to sleep on it …

If you’re looking for a toxic brew of a playoff comeback, you couldn’t have found better ingredients than the Oakland A’s (14 walkoff wins in 2012) and Jose Valverde (a human powder keg.)

Does that mean I expected Valverde too throw batting-practice fastballs to a team of freeswingers with its season on the line? No.

Of course he was going to give up a hit, maybe two. But three runs? I didn’t see that coming.

And shame on me.

A month from today we’ll look back on last night’s game in one of two ways:

The A’s are a team of destiny and they were going to win no matter what.

Or:

This has been an excruciating Tigers season and of course this series was going five games, with Justin Verlander on the mound, and the Tigers having to win on the road.

And maybe it means having Jose Valverde coming on in the ninth inning tonight to redeem himself.

Or end his Tigers career in flames.

ALDS Game 1 Non Sequiturs

There are some 2-1 or 3-1 games that you know are too close for comfort. Others, not so much.
[callout title=The Gist]ALDS Game 1

Tigers 3– A’s 2

W:Justin Verlander (1-0)

L:Jarrod Parker (0-1)

Save:Jose Valverde (1)

HR:Alex Avila (1)

Boxscore

Highlights[/callout]

I don’t know about you, but after the Tigers took a 2-1 lead over Jarrod Parker and the A’s in Game 1 of the ALDS it seemed to me like it would be tough for Oakland to score — thanks to the generous strike zone offered by umpire Jim Reynolds. And that’s only because Justin Verlander made it through the first couple of innings without suffering much damage. Coming into Game 1 my fear was Verlander would be the amped-up version we’ve seen in other postseason (and All-Star Game) outings. Despite a high pitch count in the early frames, this certainly looked like his best playoff performance. ESPN.com’s Dave Schoenfield agrees:

For Verlander, it was the best postseason start of his career. In seven previous starts (not counting the rain-shortened one-inning outing against the Yankees in last year’s division series), he had allowed at least three runs in each game and owned an unimpressive 5.57 ERA. He was shaky at the start, needing more than 60 pitches to get through the first three innings.

While I hope he’s right, I’m not sure I agree with Dave that the A’s are in trouble after just one loss. Remember when it was doom and gloom after Game 1 of the ALDS in 2006 and 2011? The Tigers fared just fine. A 2-0 lead heading to Oakland would be sublime, of course. And let’s hope for that.

Other thoughts:

  • Did you know that it was a year ago today the Tigers defeated the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS? It feels like a year to me. Speaking of anniversaries, today’s the three-year anniversary of Game 163.
  • Remember what a huge loss Brennan Boesch was last year in the playoffs? From difference maker to healthy scratch just like that.
  • From Baseball-Reference.com: On this date in 1945, a goat and its owner make an appearance at Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the World Series. The pair is told to leave before the game ends, angering the owner. The Cubs lose to the Tigers, 4-1. Detroit will go on to win the Series in seven games and the Cubs won’t win another National League championship for the rest of the 20th century. A belief that the Cubs were cursed by the goat will eventually develop.
  • I have no doubt Jim Leyland‘s going to be back next year as manager. With Terry Francona taking the Indians job, there aren’t many high-profile managers waiting in the wings — unless you want a retread like Larry Bowa or Bobby Valentine. I don’t.
  • Watching MLB Network’s post-game show, the usually sharp Ron Gant made a curious comment about the Tigers: He’s worried about the top of order, not the usually anemic bottom third. Host Brian Kenny seemed confused by the, ahem, insight too. I’ll give Gant the benefit of the doubt that he meant the bottom of the Tigers lineup is worrisome.
  • Michael Rosenberg has already filed this piece for SI.com, saying that JV is ready for postseason success. The lede:

Shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday evening, Oakland A’s outfielder Coco Crisp committed the dastardly, almost treasonous act of hitting a home run off of Justin Verlander. and that was enough of that. The A’s did not score on Verlander again. Eleven times, they struck out and had to go back to the dugout, or to their rooms without dinner. I can never remember which.

Verlander did not come here to play your silly games, Mr. Crisp. He came to this postseason to dominate, the way he has for the last two seasons, and to fix the one little blemish on a career that could bring him to the Hall of Fame.

Enjoy the few hours between now and Game 2.

Six Months Off, Two Months In: The Daily Fungo Returns

Six months ago I turned out the lights on The Fungo. The other day, I changed my mind. I know you’ve got lots of great Tigers blog choices so I hope you’ll work this site into your rotation.

Allow me, if you will, to catch up on the past half-year:

  • Victor Martinez out. I think this injury, like few others that I can remember, showed how close to the edge a Tigers offense was treading. Suddenly the club had no designated hitter, no number-two catcher (though who expected him to catch more than a handful games – at most – in 2012?) and no one to hit behind Miguel Cabrera. And, with Magglio Ordonez not coming back, who else would be a reliable middle-of-the-order hitter?

    Today, I wonder how much better the Tigers would be with Martinez at DH over Delmon Young? Methinks much, much better. I hope the possibility of a September return becomes a reality. If the Tigers have faded by that point I’m sure we won’t see #41 until Spring Training 2013.

  • Prince Fielder in. When word circulated Tigers had signed him for nine years and $214 million not long after Martinez was lost for the season (presumably) I thought “of course they did.” It was the quintessential Mike Ilitch move – and likely displeased Dave Dombrowski for no other reason than he was forced to again deal with Scott Boras. The immediate thought was “they wouldn’t move Cabrera to third would they? Nah.” Ahem.

    As a Tigers fan, who suffered through so many years of superstar-less teams, how could you not love the addition of yet another All Star? I loved it and, with his current .320 average, still do.

    P.S. I heard this on MLB Network Radio yesterday on the way to work and saw it on ESPN.com today:

    Prince Fielder (at 275 lbs) just hit his 10th career triple. According to baseball-reference.com, Prince Fielder is the second player in MLB history weighing at least 275 pounds to have 10 career triples. Adam Dunn (285 lbs) also has 10.

    Delicious.

  • Brandon Inge whines, whiffs and vanishes. So much has been written on this guy that I won’t waste much of your time with it. My issue with Inge, beyond his anemic hitting, was that he suffered from delusions of grandeur.

    Remember when he was the Tigers’ starting catcher and the club signed Pudge Rodriguez? Inge thought he should still be the starter. Remember when they traded for Cabrera and he thought he should still be the starting third baseman? No one argued that Cabrera was a better defender but did Inge really think the Tigers would stick Cabrera in left field in 2008 … or move him to DH after signing Fielder?

    From all accounts Inge is a tremendous person and certainly didn’t deserve to get booed as loudly as he did at Comerica Park. But if he hit even .240, he’d be the Tigers’ second baseman today.

  • Delmon Young shows his ugly side. We didn’t think the Delmon Era in Detroit would be a light and breezy affair, did we? I’ll be surprised if he’s on the roster at the end of June.

  • Verlander’s gem. I was bummed out when Josh Harrison foisted the ball into center, which I heard on the radio. When I saw the replay, I wondered why Jhonny Peralta didn’t lay out and try to knock it down. After a couple more looks it was clear that it would’ve been tough for him to get his glove on it.

    Not since Mark Fidrych have the Tigers had a pitcher you’d pay to see no matter the opponent. Every Verlander start is appointment TV for me.

I could go on – about the infuriating offense, Max Scherzer‘s Max Scherzerism, the inconsistent relief work, Austin Jackson‘s resurgence, Brennan Boesch‘s slow start, Ryan Raburn‘s woes, Doug Fister‘s injuries, dismal umpiring – but why bother?

Final thought: It’s bad enough to see the Tigers struggling as they are, but to see the White Sox sitting atop the A.L. Central is insulting.

And so is the idea of Craig Monroe as a studio analyst. (But I’m sure Rod is happy to have him around.)

Catching Up on Awards, Moves and Rumors

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend. I hope you and your family had a terrific day yesterday.

After a month of self-imposed baseball exile, I’ve returned to the keyboard while watching the Red Wings game and chowing on green-bean casserole leftovers.

Verlander’s Hardware Store. The Cy Young Award was no surprise, of course, but the Tigers’ ace winning the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award took me by surprise. I always assume there are enough writers in the BBWAA that loath the idea of a pitcher – and a starting pitcher at that – winning the MVP. Lo and behold, the stars aligned and Verlander won both.

Driving to work the other day I listened to Jeff Joyce and Jim Duquette on XM railing about Verlander winning the award (Duquette said that Verlander should’ve been in the top five, but not the winner.) Of course, they both raved about Verlander’s season but decided that it was not a “historically significant” season when compared to other pitchers who won both their league’s Cy Young Award and MVP. To their credit, they called out writer Jim Ingraham’s leaving Verlander off his ballot and his rationale being that J.V. didn’t appear in 79 percent of the Tigers’ games. Whatever. I didn’t expect him to win the MVP, but he did – and he deserved it, just as much as Miguel Cabrera would’ve had he gotten any support. And really, who cares about these awards a week later?

G-Moneyback. In a matter of two seasons, Gerald Laird and Alex Avila have traded places as the Tigers’ starting and backup catchers. While I would’ve preferred they’d gone after Kelly Shoppach, I can live with Laird in a backup role for one season. And with Laird on board, we no longer have to wonder if we’ll see Victor Martinez behind the plate for the remainder of his contract.

Andy Oliver got screwed by the NCAA. Last month a 15,000-word article titled “The Shame of College Sports” appeared in The Atlantic and thanks to a long flight, I was able to read it all. I didn’t expect to come across a Tigers connection but there it was, under the subhead “Restitution”:

In 2008, Andrew Oliver, a sophomore pitcher for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, had been listed as the 12th-best professional prospect among sophomore players nationally. He decided to dismiss the two attorneys who had represented him out of high school, Robert and Tim Baratta, and retain Boras instead. Infuriated, the Barattas sent a spiteful letter to the NCAA. Oliver didn’t learn about this until the night before he was scheduled to pitch in the regional final for a place in the College World Series, when an NCAA investigator showed up to question him in the presence of lawyers for Oklahoma State.

(snip)

Just hours before the game was to start the next day, Oklahoma State officials summoned Oliver to tell him he would not be pitching. Only later did he learn that the university feared that by letting him play while the NCAA adjudicated his case, the university would open not only the baseball team but all other Oklahoma State teams to broad punishment under the NCAA’s “restitution rule” (Bylaw 19.7), under which the NCAA threatens schools with sanctions if they obey any temporary court order benefiting a college athlete, should that order eventually be modified or removed. The baseball coach did not even let his ace tell his teammates the sad news in person. “He said, ‘It’s probably not a good idea for you to be at the game,’” Oliver recalls.

If you get a chance, I recommend reading the entire article. Particularly if you think college athletes should not get paid. This piece might just change your mind.

Martin Prado. If the price is Delmon Young, go get him.

The Last Boy. I’m reading Jane Leavy’s biography of Mickey Mantle and about every three pages I’m tempted to put the book aside for good. Not that it’s poorly crafted, quite the opposite. In that regard it’s exceptional. But Mantle’s was one messed up biscuit of a personal life – thanks in large part to his horrifically bad decision making and his friendship with Billy Martin. Leavy portrays a guy who kinda knows he needs to grow up but when he’s maybe tempted to do so Martin drops by to drag him out to the clubs where fights ensue and the usual stuff you’ve probably learned about Mantle years ago. If you ever thought Martin was a low-life, read this book and your suspicions will be confirmed – and then some.

Finally, this Thanksgiving weekend take a moment to learn about the appropriately named hall of famer Norman “Turkey” Stearnes.

A quiet Southerner who spent his summers blasting long balls for the Detroit Stars and his winters laboring in the Motor City’s auto plants to make ends meet, Turkey Stearnes was one of the most prolific home-run hitters in the Negro leagues.

P.S. Happy 64th Birthday to John Larroquette.

Tigers Wild Ride in ALCS Continues

And this evening I gleefully eat crow.

Justin Verlander or no, I didn’t expect the Tigers to win Game 5. After Wednesday night’s deflating extra-inning loss, my typically optimistic self thought the Tigers had run out of gas and that the Rangers were just too hot to lose.

Texas was making the most of their opportunities — lord knows they (and the Tigers with much less success) have had plenty this series — and how long could Detroit’s worn out pitching staff keep Michael Young and Adrian Beltre, the only Rangers not scorching the ball these days, in check? Not long, at least in the case of the former.

When Young doubled in the first inning, that queasy feeling of doom washed over me. Then I got angry: No way Verlander wilts in this situation. He didn’t.

Despite what some wrote, Verlander was terrific. Untouchable? No. But he had enough stuff, grit and determination to get the outs he needed at just the right time.

These same observers are saying the Tigers were lucky to win this game. Well, yeah — and it’s about time a bounce went Detroit’s way. And an ice-cold hitter hit a home run. And a starter went deep into the game. And someone other than Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde got the final outs. And a packed Comerica Park trembled one more time.

If the Tigers go on to win this series, imagine how we’ll remember a beaten down Alex Avila at last delivering a key hit with an opposite field home run, or how iconic Miguel Cabrera‘s sixth-inning double off the third-base bag will become in Detroit sports lore. Or Victor Martinez‘s triple when the man can hardly walk. Or Delmon Young‘s two rockets to left-center that put him in elite company in the Tigers’ postseason record book.

With Max Scherzer going in Game 6 — the first time the Tigers have been in a postseason Game 6 since 1968 — you have to feel good, don’t you? My guess is that he feels he has some unfinished business after Game 2 and will be on a mission Saturday night.

For now though, I’m going to savor this win and the crow I was forced to eat after not so much doubting the Tigers’ grit, but recognizing the offensive buzz saw that’s the Texas Rangers right now.

And you know what? Jim Leyland seems to be having the time of his life in this series. Perhaps it’s time I stop fretting every pitch and just enjoy the ride too.

Who’s with me?