A pitcher’s start on April 16, unless it results in a no-hitter, ought not have the kind of buzz, scrutiny, debate, outrage and hand-wringing as Justin Verlander’s did, Monday against the Royals.
Yet it did.
That’s what throwing 131 pitches will do around these parts.
The trouble with Verlander is that he’s a freak—a pitching specimen not seen around Detroit since the ball was dead and there weren’t any numbers on the backs of the jerseys.
And because Verlander is a freak, we don’t really know what to do with him.
He’s strong enough and durable enough to zing 130+ pitches into the catcher’s mitt, many north of 95 mph. Yet he’s also important enough that if he were to be lost for any significant amount of time, the Tigers might as well forfeit.
So we want to see Verlander finish what he started, because he is, in a way, his own de facto closer. You can make a case that a Justin Verlander, after 100+ pitches, is still your best bet in the ninth inning of a save situation—better than even the man who saved 49-of-49 attempts last season, Jose Valverde.
Manager Jim Leyland gave Verlander a shot at the now elusive complete game last week against Tampa. That didn’t go so well, if you recall. But the men who followed JV to the mound didn’t do him any favors, either.
But that game against the Rays was another freakazoid outing by Verlander: eight innings of one-hit ball, with not even 90 pitches thrown.
A “no brainer,” as Leyland said, when it came to running Verlander out to the mound in the ninth inning.
Monday night in Kansas City wasn’t a no-brainer, not at all.
Verlander had eclipsed 100 pitches, yet went out to finish what he started, with a 3-1 lead. The one KC run came way back in the first inning, which in a Verlander start might as well be last week, for the way that he can distance himself from early damage.
Personally, I thought it was great baseball theater, watching Verlander struggle and put men on base and allowing the second Royals run to cross the plate.
Will Leyland take him out, or leave him in?
After the second runner was placed on base, Leyland chugged out of the dugout.
But he didn’t remove Verlander. He didn’t even look at the bullpen. It was marvelous.
The bases became loaded after a hit batsman—the no. 9 hitter—and leadoff hitter Alex Gordon could have won the game with a simple base hit.
But nothing is simple against Justin Verlander, not even in the ninth inning after over 125 pitches.
Maybe especially in the ninth inning, after 125+ pitches.
Gordon’s at-bat was as heart thumping and exhilirating as any you will see in a game played in Kansas City on a Monday night in mid-April. Or in New York in late September.
I loved it. I loved the drama. And I loved the ending: a 100 mph fastball at the knees and on the black, taken for strike three.
With no margin for error, Verlander had thrown the unhittable pitch.
So who cares if it was 131 pitches? Who cares if it might have seemed reckless? Who cares if 29 of the 30 managers wouldn’t have done what Jim Leyland did?
It was great theater and Justin Verlander will be just fine and all the scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.