Verlander shows elite status on big stage
DETROIT -- This was one of those nights when Justin Verlander reminded the world that he's about as good anyone has ever been.
He was throwing 99 mph on the corner one moment, then coming back with an 86-mph changeup.
Or maybe an 87-mph slider.
Or a curveball that's one of the better ones in baseball.
On nights like this one, when baseball's best pitcher is at the top of his game, the A's quickly understood what they were up against.
"That's the reason he's probably the best pitcher in this game," A's second baseman Cliff Pennington said. "He has four of the best pitches in the game. He was using all four of 'em tonight. He and a couple of other guys have that ability to go to another level. He definitely did that tonight."
The A's battled him early, ran up his pitch count and had at least one runner on base in each of the first five innings. A's leadoff man Coco Crisp opened the game with a home run for a 1-0 lead. After that, the A's got just one more runner into scoring position.
In seven innings, Verlander allowed three hits, walked four and struck out 11 as the Tigers won Game 1 of a best-of-five American League Division Series, 3-1, on Saturday at Comerica Park.
In a short series, Game 1 is critically important, especially for the team playing it at home. The A's had history with Verlander, fouling off 33 pitches during a start in September.
On that day, he pitched six shutout innings, but threw a whopping 122 pitches. On Saturday, he began slowly, attempting to figure out how aggressive the A's would be. Once he gained confidence in all his pitches, he settled in nicely.
"In the postseason, you don't go out there and think about pitch count and keeping it low," Verlander said. "You just think about getting as many outs as you can and not letting guys score. Early on was kind of a bit of a battle for me."
If there was a silver lining for the A's, it was that they made Verlander work for it. He threw 121 pitches in all, but by the time he was done, he'd had put his whole catalog on display.
At times, he seemed to be toying with the A's, and that's what the great ones are capable of doing. He struck out five straight Oakland hitters in the sixth and seventh innings and seemingly could have done anything he wanted at that point.
"He's got a unique thing in that he can kind of pick when to be dominant," A's designated hitter Seth Smith said. "That's how he gets deep into games. He can kind of cruise, and if someone gets on, he can buckle down and get the outs he needs. He's got it figured out. He knows what he's doing. To his credit, he's one of the few guys that legitimately gets better as the game goes on. After the fifth inning, he was nails."
For instance, Verlander started A's first baseman Brandon Moss off with an 85-mph changeup in the sixth inning. Moss took it for a strike, and then Verlander followed with a curveball-changeup for his seventh strikeout of the game.
By then, Moss had seen it all. Verlander had struck him out on a changeup in the first inning, got him on a 99-mph heater in the third and then came back with more offspeed stuff in the sixth.
"You can't start trying to think with him, because he'll throw anything at anytime," Moss said. "You can't eliminate any pitches, because he throws 'em all for strikes. He's got even better ones when there's two strikes. There are reasons he has the numbers he has. We knew it was going to be a battle. He came out and won that battle."
Verlander's teammates marvel at his ability to raise his game to another level when he's in trouble. Catcher Alex Avila says he has often been amazed to see how good the righty's stuff is when he's in the bullpen working on various things.
He's just 29 years old, too, and there may be a time years from now when we're able to look back and say we got a chance to see one of the best there ever was. That's how a lot of people feel about him now.
"He's that bona fide No. 1 starter," Avila said. "When he's out there, you have a really good feeling you're going to win the game. When he gets in that groove and can put the ball wherever he wants at 77 mph to 97 mph, that's just really tough for a hitter. When he's on like that, you tip your cap to him."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.