Published August 8, 2016

We were all warned.

The fans who doubted, the opposing hitters who may have thought that their jobs got a little easier, the media wonks who wrote about his greatness in the past tense.

He warned us all.

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The tweet was shot into cyber space following the latest—at the time—poor outing from Justin Verlander.

It was after an ugly, five inning cameo in Cleveland in which Verlander gave up eight hits, seven earned runs and took the loss. His record fell to 2-3 but more importantly—and more disturbingly—his ERA was 6.49 and the WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) was a smelly 1.44.

Verlander had turned 33 years old in February, so right away some folks looked at him cross-eyed because of the calendar’s possible negative effects. He pitched well in the second half of 2015 but this was a new season and he seemed to have regressed to his struggling ways of 2014 and the early portion of last year.

So here we were, six starts into 2016 and Verlander’s body of work left a lot to be desired.

There was a brutal outing against the Pirates in which Verlander couldn’t make it out of the fifth inning, surrendering 10 hits and seven runs.

There were some decent starts mixed in, but the consistency wasn’t there and just when you thought that Verlander might have been righting the ship, he laid the egg in Cleveland.

He was looked at as a former ace, never again to attain that status. The comments on the Internet and the cranky calls into sports talk radio were less than kind.

Verlander was done. Finished. This was the end of an era happening before our very eyes. Thank goodness for Jordan Zimmermann, eh?

Verlander is one of baseball’s most tuned in players. He craves the spotlight. He feeds off big game pressure like a termite does off wood.

And he knows what people are saying about him behind his back—or in this case, for all the world to see and hear.

That’s why Verlander went into Joe Namath mode, circa 1969, with his tweet guaranteeing greatness once again.

The tweet wasn’t lacking in boldness. Verlander didn’t use any word less than “dominate.” He didn’t make any safe predictions. It wasn’t wishy-washy nor could the tweet have been misinterpreted in any way, shape or form.

“I’m going to dominate soon!”

Now, the Twitter world is filled with half-cocked declarations and ill-advised blather. The outlandish seems to be the norm at times.

Professional athletes are often in the middle of Twitterverse firestorms, and most of the time the controversies are of their own doing.

So when Verlander tweeted out his promise of dominance—and soon!—it no doubt would have been used against him if the warning/prediction didn’t come close to being true. It was also derided by some at the time the tweet was shot out as being an empty, almost pathetic pledge by a once-great pitcher.

Well, the tweet is being used, alright, but not as Exhibit A in the public opinion trial against him, but as the start of an incredible timeline that has Justin Brooks Verlander in the discussion—big time—as a possible American League Cy Young Award winner.

Verlander told us that he was going to dominate—soon!—and gee whiz, that’s exactly what he started doing after that start on May 3 in Cleveland.

He wasted no time in backing up his bravado with action.

Five days after Cleveland, the Texas Rangers came to Detroit and Verlander silenced the Rangers’ big bats with seven innings of shutout baseball. He only gave up three hits, walked just two and fanned nine.

But Verlander didn’t get a decision because right after he left the game, Tigers relievers coughed up eight runs in the final two innings and the team lost.

No matter.

Verlander kept going out there every fifth day and he continued to, using his word, dominate.

There was one stinker—a June 26 loss to the Indians in Detroit in which the Tribe roughed Verlander up to the tune of eight runs and nine hits in 4.2 innings. But other than that, Verlander has, indeed, dominated.

On Friday night, the New York Mets, with their vaunted though underachieving pitching staff, invaded Comerica Park. The series opener featured a dandy of a pitching matchup: one of baseball’s young guns, the not-quite-24 years old Noah Syndergaard, and the grizzled Verlander.

Starting pitchers will tell you that they’re not going up against the other starter—they’re going against the other team’s hitters.

Sometimes that’s true.

Sometimes that’s pure, unadulterated, balderdash.

Verlander was indeed going up against Syndergaard on Friday night. How could he not be?

Here was one of the Mets’ big, young arms—one who is being counted on by the Kings of Queens to pitch them back into the National League playoff picture. It was a Friday night, the opener of an intriguing weekend series because of the direction each team was headed in—the Tigers going north, the Mets not so much.

And here was the once-great Verlander who is now great again, taking the mound to show the kid Syndergaard that it’s great to be young, but it’s better to be experienced.

Syndergaard pitched well, but Verlander pitched better.

The Tigers held on for a 4-3 win, and Verlander moved to 12-6 with a 3.52 ERA and a shrinking WHIP of 1.05. He leads the league in innings pitched (153.1) and is striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings, which is his highest ratio since 2012 and the second highest of his 12-year career.

The fastball regularly touches the mid-90s, even late in games. The pitch speeds are changed and mixed with virtuoso-like skill. The breaking ball is back to buckling hitters’ knees.

So yeah, why not Justin Verlander for Cy Young?

The fact that this is even a discussion in early-August after a lousy first month of the season should be enough to give Verlander some sort of an award right now.

The fact that this is even a discussion at all in 2016 is one of baseball’s best stories that no one is talking about—yet.

But as the season dwindles and the games grow in importance—which they will for the Tigers if they hope to be in the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six years—“Justin Verlander” and “Cy Young Award” will find themselves in an awful lot of sentences together.

Oh and speaking of important games, is there anyone Tigers fans should want to see on the mound for such games more than Verlander?

Jack Morris still resonates in Tigers lore for being Detroit’s workhorse and the team’s most trusted starter in games that absolutely had to be won. It was a reputation that followed Morris to Minnesota and Toronto.

But with no disrespect to Morris—or to Mickey Lolich, Verlander is, without question, the best big game pitcher in Tigers history.

In 98 postseason innings, Verlander is 7-5 with a 3.39 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. He has struck out over 10 batters per nine innings in October.

Just ask the poor Oakland A’s about Verlander’s playoff dominance after what JV did to them in the 2012 and 2013 ALDS: one earned run in 31 innings combined, with 43 strikeouts.

The success in October hasn’t translated in Verlander’s two World Series appearances, but the Tigers don’t even get past the ALDS without Verlander in 2012-13.

Verlander lives for this time of year, when the games grow in size and the glare of the spotlight is hotter and could blind a lesser pitcher.

Every time he takes the mound from here until the end of the season, Verlander will be a pig in slop because the games start to really matter.

The resurgence started with the tweet heard ’round the world on May 3.

We were warned.

Verlander delivered.

Even Broadway Joe is winking.

 

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