SAN FRANCISCO – In 1968, the Detroit Tigers won a World Series thanks mostly to the pitching of Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain. In 1984, they got back to the top of the baseball world with veteran Jack Morris leading the way. In 2006, they were three years removed from a 119-loss season, too young and too jittery to survive against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Justin Verlander remembers that week all too well. Six years later, he’s the face of the Tigers’ rotation and getting another chance. He’s been the most dominant pitcher in baseball for two years running. He gets the ball tonight in AT&T Park in Game One of the 2012 Fall Classic (8 p.m., Ch. 29, Radio 550 AM) against the San Francisco Giants, looking to forever cement his legacy in Motown.
“, it was my rookie year and everything was kind of a whirlwind,” Verlander said here Tuesday as the teams met the international baseball media. “I don’t think I really appreciated the magnitude of how hard it is to get here. ... Just being able to take it in a little bit more, having some experience under my belt and having been in situations like this allows me not to be so wide eyed and be a little calmer and take things in.”
Verlander will face San Francisco veteran Barry Zito tonight in just the fourth matchup of previous Cy Young Award winners in Series history. A struggling Zito was left off the roster when the Giants beat Texas in five games two years ago.
Verlander, 29, had one of the greatest seasons in history in 2011 with a 24-5 record, 2.40 earned-run average and 250 strikeouts in 251 innings, taking both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.
He went 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and a league-leading 239 strikeouts this season. But he has been virtually unhittable in the postseason by winning all three of his starts, posting an 0.74 ERA and striking out 25 in 24? innings.
Verlander is a five-time All-Star who has thrown two no-hitters and has had several other close calls. Verlander and former Los Angeles Dodgers great Don Newcombe are the only pitchers to ever win the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. But Verlander is the only man to accomplish those three and start an All-Star Game, which he did in July in Kansas City.
“He’s so tough on everybody,” said Tigers catcher Alex Avila. “I’ve seen guys that have never seen him before get a hit off him and seem pretty comfortable but I’ve seen guys who have faced him 150 times just have no idea how to get a hit off him.
“To be able to catch him the last few years has been a privilege. He’ll probably be the best pitcher I’ll ever catch.”
During the American League Championship Series last week in Comerica Park, Morris recalled some conversations he had with Verlander last spring about becoming an ace and seizing the moment.
“A few years back I saw a young kid with more God-given ability than 99.9 percent of the world ever sees, and I wanted to make sure that he knew that I recognized that, number one, and, number two, that I am on his side,” Morris said.
“I think once I kind of let the steam off in front of him and he understood that my heart’s in the same side as his heart. ... I just wanted to let him know that I think he needs to take it to the next level.”
Verlander said Tuesday he’s enjoyed picking the brain of former players and his chats with Morris were definitely helpful.
“Jack and I had a sitdown, and it wasn’t like a mentor type situation, it was just I like to pick the brains of baseball players and guys that I’ve admired,” Verlander said. “Obviously he’s one of them. So any opportunity I have to speak with those individuals, I don’t take that for granted. I enjoy doing that.
“He came into the clubhouse and we had a few minutes and just kind of sat down and talked shop. It wasn’t any mind-blowing information or anything that you guys would want to hear, but it was just kind of sitting down and talking our craft.”
Verlander’s craft has become impeccable because he’s no longer just about trying to throw 98-99 mph as he was earlier in his career. He can command four pitches now.
“He just never loses any stuff and that’s pretty hard to do,” marveled Giants ace Matt Cain. “In the ninth inning, he still has the same stuff he has in the beginning. Pretty amazing.”
“He’s always been pretty intense,” Avila said. “What has propelled him to be the best in the game is learning how to pitch. He was a thrower. Everybody knew he threw hard. If he got the curveball over every now and then, he’d get a lot of guys out. Now he can throw a curveball, slider and changeup for strikes and that’s really propelled him.
“Early in his career, he had the great stuff and people were waiting for him to get to this point. It takes time and experience.”
Verlander is the ace of a Detroit staff that also features Doug Fister, Anibel Sanchez and Max Scherzer. Verlander is scheduled to start Games One and Five of this series but you certainly could see him in relief in Game Seven (think Randy Johnson in Arizona in 2001).
“I feel comfortable with all my pitchers,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “Obviously I feel real comfortable with . But you know what? Anybody that’s here is going to have good pitchers. Giants got good pitchers, too. You don’t get here unless you can pitch.”