Justin Verlander was not expected to allow runs. Justin Verlander allowed runs. Whenever there's cognitive dissonance like that, there's a temptation to ask what's wrong. What did Verlander do wrong? Was his stuff lackluster? Wonky mechanics? Did the layoff make a difference? Everyone has an opinion, and a lot of those opinions were formed immediately after the fact. The guy who would probably know best, Verlander, said he was out of sync.
Sometimes, there is something obviously wrong. When the Giants hit Chris Carpenter in the sixth game of the NLCS, Yadier Molina was often sitting on the outside corner, looking for a sinker down, and Carpenter would sail a sinker up and over the plate.
This was not one of those starts for Verlander. He had his stuff. He (mostly) hit his spots. But a couple of tip-your-cap swings from Pablo Sandoval, lengthy at-bats from Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro, and some (yes) poor luck are what did Verlander in.
Here's Sandoval's first home run:
That came on an 0-2 count. It wasn't the pitch he wanted to make -- Alex Avila set up outside -- but it was a fastball above the letters from Justin Verlander on an 0-2 count. Those … don't get hit. And it's not like that's an automatic happy zone for Sandoval; throughout the year, that's where teams wanted to set up for the strikeout. Sandoval will chase. You knew that. So does the rest of the league. Every so often, he'll get a hold of one of those pitches out of the zone, but it's not that common.
Whatever. A 1-0 lead after one inning isn't a big deal. It's how Verlander started the playoffs, after all. What did him in was the bottom of the third inning, and it wasn't bad pitching that caused the cave-in.
Angel Pagan is not a contact junkie. He'll swing and miss, especially at breaking balls. Verlander got ahead of him 0-1, and he tried to get him to chase at a breaking ball. Here's where Avila set up:
And here's were the pitch went:
Pagan didn't chase, but they had the right idea. And on a 1-2 count, they went back to the breaking ball:
That's what pitchers are supposed to do against Pagan. Verlander executed the pitch he wanted, and he executed it well.
That's another two-strike, two-out breaking ball, and Pagan scraped some neutrinos off the top to stay alive. I'd wager that when he takes that swing, he misses five times out of ten, puts it weakly in play two times out of ten, and fouls it off the other three. Don't pay attention to where I pulled those numbers from -- I keep them there for safekeeping -- just focus on the idea. You get the point. That curve, in that situation, to that hitter, usually results in a favorable outcome for Verlander. It would have ended the inning.
Here's Pagan's double:
Hmm. Probably not something Pagan learned from Tom Emanski. Again, Verlander made his pitch. That should have retired the side.
Instead, he had to face Marco Scutaro. There's a documentary starring Scutaro as a minor leaguer, A Player to Be Named Later, and it details how Cobra Commander made Scutaro in a lab after exhuming the DNA of Rogers Hornsby and rifling through the trash to find a used Joe Morgan Band-Aid. At least, I think that's what it's about. I haven't watched it yet.
Scutaro is not Pagan; he doesn't chase a lot. And this is the at-bat that really hurt Verlander. After coming back with a fastball to even the count at 1-1, Verlander threw a nasty curve. It started here:
And ended here:
Scutaro took it. Because he's annoying. There's no other way to describe him. He's the kind of hitter who will spit on that pitch. And such trickery serves only to fire Scutaro up.
The next pitch was a Verlander special, a perfect curve ball:
Scutaro took it for a strike. Unless a hitter is looking for that pitch in a 2-1 count, that's all he can do. It was a great way to put Scutaro into a two-strike count. But remember, Scutaro is annoying. A two-strike count is different for him than it is for other hitters. Verlander tried a 98-m.p.h. fastball on the hands:
Fouled off. Verlander tried a 98-m.p.h. fastball at the belt:
Fouled off. And when he figured that Scutaro could do this all day, Verlander threw a slider, the first slider he'd thrown since the second inning. But that was against Hunter Pence (four straight!), who would strike out against Wilson Valdez's slider right now, so that barely counts. The slider was unexpected, 88 m.p.h., and it had good movement. It was probably a little higher than Verlander intended, but not by much, considering it was a 3-2 count.
I love watching Scutaro's lower body on pitches like this; it's unbelievably calm, and his trigger is ridiculously quick. He'll be 37 in less than a week, you know. So ridiculous.
Verlander gave up a cheap hit with two outs, and then he ran into the wrong hitter at the wrong time. After Scutaro came Sandoval again. That was, once more, the wrong hitter at the wrong time.
Sandoval's second homer came on a 2-0 count, and you can argue that Verlander's mistake was falling behind. But think about Sandoval's reputation. Was Verlander supposed to drop a lazy curve in to steal a strike? Pump a fastball down the middle because Sandoval was going to be taking? No, the Tigers were trying to take advantage of Sandoval's aggressiveness, as almost every team does, and Verlander threw consecutive changes in the dirt. They could have been a little higher, a little closer to the zone, but the pitches were pretty close to where Avila set up.
That put Verlander in a fastball count, and in a 2-0 count, there probably isn't a better pitch to make than this:
That's a 95-m.p.h. fastball on the black. Sandoval took it the other way. He'll go the other way when he's hot, but not that often. He beat the pitch Verlander wanted to make.
With two outs, Verlander had Angel Pagan in a 1-2 count. Most of the time, you can guess how that will end up. After getting ahead of Pagan, Verlander threw 25 more pitches. A lot of them were the ones he wanted to make, but when he left the mound, the Tigers were behind 4-0.
Was Verlander as precise as he was in his last start against the Yankees? No, of course not. If he were that sharp every outing, he'd finish each season with an ERA under 2.00. But he was still Justin Verlander. He got an unlucky bounce, and he faced Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval in the wrong sequence, at exactly the wrong time. They had their best at-bats of the night, if not the postseason, back-to-back.
Layoff? Fatigue? Mechanics? Out of sync? Sure, I can buy any of those. But I'd be more inclined to circle "one of those things" and not worry about his next start. Well, I'll be worrying about his next start because I'm a Giants fan. The rest of the world shouldn't worry, though. This kind of sequence happens to every pitcher, even the mythical Verlander, who still verlands better than anyone else alive.