It took Justin Verlander a few innings to settle in on Friday night. The 33-year-old ace said he made a mechanical adjustment after the second inning, which made a huge difference, particularly with his slider.
If Verlander was off, or “rusty,” as Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus described his first 29 pitches, Los Angeles Angels infielder Cliff Pennington wasn’t fortunate enough to face him during that window.
“If he was bad the first two innings, I wish I would have faced him then,” Pennington joked.
What Pennington saw was anything but "rusty."
Verlander was locked in, using his slider with supreme efficiency, and he was locating. At one point, during Pennington's final at-bat against the former American League Cy Young Award winner, he fouled off five straight pitches on an 0-2 count. Pennington sensed that the lengthy battle might not end well for him, and he turned to Tigers catcher James McCann and indicated as much.
"At one point," McCann recalled, "he shook his head, turned around and said, ‘This isn’t good. I woke the bear, didn’t I?’”
Verlander ended up striking out Pennington, prevailing in the 10-pitch staredown and gaining some satisfaction in finishing him off. Verlander left the game after giving up a double to the next batter, Kole Calhoun, but came away from the Tigers’ 4-2 victory with his 14th win of the season.
Verlander’s 14 wins have him tied for fifth in the American League. He currently ranks second in strikeouts (189), innings pitched (181.0) and WHIP (1.02). Considering how wide open this year’s AL Cy Young race figures to be, a lights-out September could place Verlander in the conversation once again.
What has his resurgence meant to the Tigers?
Well, even the promise of it was enough to significantly influence the team’s offseason approach.
“I think part of the reason we went after some of the people we went after in the offseason was because Verlander finished so strong,” Ausmus said. “I think if Verlander had floundered in August or September of last year it might have been a different approach during the offseason, because we went into the offseason thinking, ‘OK, we have Verlander back. With him, if we can get some help on the pitching side, we can compete for the division again.'”
Considering the Tigers’ current state of the rotation -- injured veterans Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, three kids without playoff experience (Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer) and the wildly inconsistent Anibal Sanchez -- the Tigers need Verlander to perform at his optimal level to remain in the pennant race with the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians.
“We’ve had some young guys ... young starting pitchers who have done well. Fulmer has obviously done exceptional. Those guys, quite truthfully, aren’t used to a six-month season,” Ausmus said. “Boyd and Norris have been up the past two years, but there’s a difference between a six-month season and a five-month minor league season, so they’ve done great, we need them to continue to do great but we'd like to get guys like Zimmermann back because they have done it before.”
Zimmermann still requires two more rehab starts before rejoining the rotation, but Verlander already is poised to build on what has been a tremendous 2016 campaign. And judging from recent history, he steps up his game as the end of the season nears.
Take a look at his numbers in September/October from 2011 to 2014 -- the past four seasons during which the Tigers have been in the playoff hunt heading into the final stretch of the season:
This ability to match his game with the moment is part of what made him elite in the first place. It's part of why he remains one of the best pitchers in the game, even if his fastball isn't the same as what it once was. The hyper-competitive Verlander said after his last start that he was enjoying the electricity and excitement that comes with trying to secure a postseason berth. Surely he missed that last season.
"This is what you work for. This is what you work so hard in the offseason for, so that you can be strong at the end of the season and continue to give yourself the chance to win when it really counts," Verlander said following Friday's outing, his ninth consecutive quality start.
The cooler the weather gets, the more the chips get pushed to the center of the table, the more Verlander seems to thrive.
“I think the brighter the light, the bigger the stage, the better he can be.” Ausmus said.
The Tigers were out of playoff contention by this time last year, so McCann has never seen Verlander on this stage before, but he’s seen enough that he can imagine what it will look like when he’s prepared to go full throttle.
“I've never seen him back down from competition,” McCann said. “In fact, every time there is something on the line, he seems to step into another gear, even a gear you couldn’t imagine.”