One of these days, Justin Verlander won't be anything special. He'll be diluted Verlander, a pitcher who only hints at his former self, like Carlos Zambrano or Roy Oswalt these last couple of years. It might happen when he's 40, but it'll happen. He'll be just another pitcher.
Until then, he's JUSTIN VERLANDER, all caps, and I will put on viking metal and fight you if you disagree. This season wasn't his typical Verlander year, sure, but he was still excellent. The rogue idea about him pitching out of the bullpen this postseason was ridiculous. That would be like getting Kubrick to direct a GEICO commercial. Roll up a newspaper and hit that idea across the nose.
And on Saturday night, Verlander was Verlander was Verlander by any other name. The fastball/curve combination kept A's hitters twitching all night. When he got into trouble, he had a nervous, fidgety energy about him. It wasn't the nervous energy of a rookie; it was the nervous energy of a pitcher who knew he was better than everyone else and couldn't believe he had to put up with this crap. He was right to have that energy.
Last year at this time, everyone was talking about Verlander as if he were a latter-day Bob Gibson. There was awe. There was fear. A year can certainly change that perception, but this year wasn't enough to make that change. Verlander is still one of the best pitchers ever invented.
But back to that "one of these days" allusion from the beginning. One of these days, the Next Justin Verlander will be the Actual Next Justin Verlander. There will be a guy who marries the velocity with the control with the durability with the workhorsemanship. In five or ten years, we'll be able to point to a guy and say, "There. There is the true heir to Justin Verlander." Until then, there's going to be an inappropriate urge to find that guy first.
When Gerrit Cole came up with otherworldly stuff but not the strikeouts you'd expect, it reminded me of Verlander. And when Cole mowed through the Cardinals in the NLDS, that's all I could think of. Except let's give Cole a few years. Maybe he'll throw a couple of no-hitters, toss 240 innings regularly, and win an MVP. Or, not. Looking forward to watching it, but the analogy to Verlander isn't there yet. Same goes for Harvey and Fernandez. Hold on, there. Still a lot to sift through.
On Saturday night, it would have been so easy to pass a torch. Because Sonny Gray was transcendent. He was like ... like a strong, hard-throwing right-hander with a power curve and excellent command. I'm sure a comp will come to me. He was like ... dang. Tip of my tongue. And if Verlander gave up five earned runs with Gray pitching as well as he did, there would have been a rush to make a big deal about the match-up. One guy up, one guy down. Cycle of life, sunrise/sunset.
Except Verlander was just as good. And it made for one of the better playoff games you'll ever see. It was the first scoreless duel through seven innings in the playoffs since ... Freddy Garcia and Brandon Backe? Dammit, I'm looking for a narrative, here. But Verlander was a part of the story on Saturday. He was Ace #1 against Ace #2. He wasn't ready to pass the torch. He was swinging it, wildly, threatening everyone who came close.
The story of the game is going to be Gray. He was a first-rounder who was struggling in Double-A about 400 days ago. Couldn't strike anyone out. Couldn't limit the walks. He was excellent this year, though, and he's carried that success into the postseason. It was a wondrous performance, and the A's won because of it. He is the story. His team won.
I keep going back to Verlander, though. The Tigers lost, so no one's going to be talking about him. But he was just as good as ever. He was the Verlander that you expected exactly a year ago today. It was beyond impressive. And, technically, the Tigers have home-field advantage in a best-of-three series now. The odds still favor them. So how good was it for Tigers fans, then, to see Verlander throw like that, even in a losing effort? It was like old times. And there could be a lot of playoffs left.
Maybe the old Verlander might have gone nine innings, though. Maybe the torch isn't ready to be passed, but maybe it's in some sort of, dunno, trust account, where no one has access to it right now. Verlander dominating for seven innings and leaving seems like something of a step back for him, like he's on the other side of the hill. That's certainly possible. Gray was better. Not by much, but he was better.
Whatever. That part doesn't matter as much to me. I was looking forward to Verlander's start like it was Rocky V -- a down-on-his-luck champ looking for redemption. No, it was IV, right down to the part where he magnanimously congratulated the loser afterward. Though I guess that means Ivan Drago went to America in this version, and that the A's are evil representations of ... alright, that's a horrible analogy. But Saturday was more about a pitcher at the height of his powers than a pitcher looking to climb back on top. It was easy to forget that.
If there were a Game 7 on Wednesday, and Clayton Kershaw were going for the other team, who would you pick to go against him? I'm still going Verlander. Maybe I'm living in the past, but I'm stuck in my ways. The Tigers lost the game, but if they needed a silver lining, Justin Verlander pitching like that is one hell of a silver lining.
I'd like to order a dozen more playoff games like that, please.