DETROIT—It is difficult to nitpick very much about the pitcher who has been the best at his craft this season.
However, Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander has proven to be human after having an exceptional regular season in which his 7.0 WARP led major-league pitchers. That mark also placed him fourth among all major-league players behind Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista (10.3), Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (9.0), and Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp (8.1), leading some to speculate that Verlander could become the first pitcher to win Most Valuable Player honors since Roger Clemens was voted the American League award a quarter-century ago.
Verlander will take the mound this afternoon at Comerica Park with the Tigers' season in the balance. They trail the Rangers 3-1 in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series and need a win in Game 5 against Texas ace left-hander C.J. Wilson just to stay alive.
It is hard to imagine anyone wanting any other pitcher than Verlander to pitch in an elimination game. Nevertheless, questions have arisen about how much he has left.
Verlander led the majors with 251 innings pitched in the regular season and has thrown 13 more in the postseason, as two of his three starts have been interrupted by rain. He also threw at least 104 pitches in each of his 34 regular-season starts, exceeding 110 in 10 games.
Verlander gave up five runs in seven innings to the Orioles in his final regular-season start. The runs allowed were one off his season high, and his 46 game score was his fifth-worst of the year.
Verlander has also been less than dominant in the postseason. He pitched just one inning, allowing one run and walking two, against the Yankees in Game 1 of their American League Division Series before the game was suspended in the second inning. He won Game 4 of that series but was touched for four runs in eight innings. He was not sharp in losing Game 1 of the ALCS last Saturday at Arlington, giving up three runs in four innings before being forced out of the game following two rain delays. In 11 innings, he has allowed eight runs, 11 hits, and seven walks.
So is it picking at a nit to suggest that Verlander might be tired after logging the second-most pitcher abuse points in the major leagues during the regular season? Only the Mariners' Felix Hernandez accumulated more PAP.
Verlander, though, dismisses the fatigue factor.
"I feel good," he said. "It's just a matter of getting my mechanics right. The entire season is really a roller coaster as to not only how you feel but how your mechanics are and how locked in you are. I feel like the first couple of (post-season) starts just have not been quite right. I've gone on runs where I've kind of gotten into rhythm, but it's also been tough because I've gotten rained out after an inning, gotten rained out after four innings. But, hey, I'm not making any excuses whatsoever. I have to go out there and pitch better than I have. I need to really establish a rhythm from the get-go and maintain my feel throughout the game."
Verlander would seem like the last guy to be a feel pitcher. According to FanGraphs, Verlander's fastball averaged 95.0 mph in the regular season, and he also had a changeup that averaged 86.4 mph and a hard slider at 85.9 mph.
However, Verlander believes he has lost some of the touch on his pitches, which is why he had two bullpen throwing sessions between his last two starts with pitching coach Jeff Jones rather than the usual one session. They tried to work out issues with Verlander's throwing mechanics.
"Once you go out there on the mound in the game, you don't worry about the mechanical stuff," Verlander said. "That's why I threw two bullpen sessions, to try to create that muscle memory and get my body back where it needs to be. That way, you just go out there and do whatever you can to get guys out."
In addition to beating him in Game 1, the Rangers handed Verlander just one of five regular-season losses. That was a 2-0 setback on April 11 at Comerica Park, which came despite Verlander’s pitching a six-hitter for one of his four complete games in 2011.
"Just because we've beaten him twice doesn't mean it's easy," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "You just hope he makes some mistakes up in the zone. When he's keeping the ball down, he's really all but impossible to hit."
Verlander has had such a great year that it would have been easy for Leyland to consider bringing him back on short rest Wednesday in an attempt to better the Tigers' chances of evening the series at 2-2. However, Verlander has pitched on short rest just once in his seven-year career, and that came in the ALDS when he started and won Game 4 with three days between outings. That start was an aberration, though, coming after his one-inning outing in the series opener. Leyland and his staff did discuss the idea of pitching Verlander on Wednesday but decided against it.
"We really truly believe that this is the best way to go because we think this is the best thing for Justin Verlander, and in turn that means it's the best thing for the team," Leyland said before Game 4. "The story would read good if we pitched him. It would be great for Fox (television) and all the hype, but it wouldn't be good for the Detroit Tigers. You have to win four games to win the series. Somebody else has got to win games. Just because Justin is pitching doesn't guarantee you're going to win the game. They've got a pretty good pitcher in C.J. Wilson going against him. So we thought that we should keep on the regular rest. We thought that was a smart thing to do."
Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis: "He gets a little too much of the plate with his fastball for my taste. One thing he still has to learn is to be more effectively wild, get hitters to chase some pitches out of the zone so they don't sit on the fastball. He gives up a lot of home runs because he throws too many strikes with the fastball."
Brewers right-hander Shaun Marcum:"He has a very thin margin for error, and that's been showing in the postseason. He throws a lot of pitches for strikes, but none of them are what you'd call put-away pitches. He has to hit his spots. When he doesn't, he becomes very hittable, especially against a good lineup."
Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez:"I don't think anyone can ever question his toughness after what he did in Game 3 (of the ALCS). He was in so much pain after he hit the home run that I didn't think he was going to be able to make it around the bases (because of a strained intercostal muscle in his side). There are very few guys who would have stayed in the game, let alone taken two more at-bats. That showed a lot of guts."
Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols:"I have to laugh every time people start worrying about Albert if he goes a game or two without a big hit or an RBI. The guy is human. Well, at least sort of. He can take over a game like nobody else, though, just like he did in Game 2 (of the NLCS) when he had four extra-base hits. Four extra-base hits in a post-season game? Are you kidding me? That's why the Cardinals have a good chance to win the whole thing even though they aren't necessarily the best team remaining."