Tag Archives: Justin Verlander

game 2 Does It Matter How You Win?

Winning, we are pounded to understand, is everything. Coaches, fans, and players are in fervent agreement here—nothing matters except winning, and winning it all: the World Series is all that counts. Everything short of that is practice or failure.

The hyperbolic extension of this motivational speech is that there’s nothing to sports but the score and, for that matter, no reason to watch a game until October. But most of us want to follow the path to the outcome, not just tick off a win or a loss.

On the second day of play, I am nothing but a sponge ready to soak up some baseball. In many ways, winning is not on my mind at all. I’m curious to see Detroit’s new lineup, with Prince Fielder at first and Miguel Cabrera shifted to third. I’m eager to see if Justin Verlander can prove that the offseason has not eroded his velocity, competitiveness, and serene composure on the mound. And I want to watch the Red Sox, with Bobby Valentine newly at the helm, try to wipe the slate clean after last September’s collapse.

But before too long, it’s clear that I’ve made up my mind about this game. Verlander should win it, as the first step on another season’s march to results like last year’s 21-4 record. I polish up this hope after three solid innings by both pitchers, with Verlander and Jon Lester both mowing down opposing hitters. If I’m here to see some pitching prowess, let’s wish for Verlander to reveal that staggering edge he has.

It’s a day game, the first true Opening Day contest, and the temperature’s in the mid-40s in Detroit, under cloudy skies. Why do I love Verlander? And why does his unpretentious ease with throwing baseballs impress me so? Today it tells in his nutty choice to go with short sleeves, white polyester fluttering lightly over bare arms. Lester, sensibly, is wearing a red long-sleeved shirt beneath his Boston grays. Is Verlander from our planet?

Both pitchers continue gathering quick outs. Detroit musters leadoff hits in the first, second, and third, only to have Lester passionlessly erase them with double play balls. Lester is a quiet pitcher, prone to curling his wrist to bend his gloved hand up flat along his shoulder, like a violin, while he waits for the sign. His eyes are starkly shaded by the cap he’s pressed down into a simple round dome, in the peakless style now in favor. He doesn’t seem to be hearing music up there, and that black wing of leather perched on his shoulder is less an instrument than an appendage. He hurries, betraying no emotion.

By the fifth inning, Lester gets into a genuine jam after giving up a leadoff hit and then walking the next batter. Now Alex Avila is up, the Detroit catcher who earned, and deserved, the starting All-Star spot last year. I watched him many times, and learned to respect his hitting abilities that well outdid Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, the player I confess to loving beyond all reason.

Well, in this at-bat Avila does not impress. He lunges, without a lick of timing or balance, to stab his bat into bunting position but punches nothing but air. He is flailing, as only a player not quite burnished from spring training can. Lester strikes him out. Was 2011, Avila’s second full year, his apogee?

Lester converts the rest of Detroit’s threat into fly outs, and the game stays scoreless. Verlander has had fewer brushes with danger, but he was called upon to strike out David Ortiz with a man on second, which he did by dialing up the velocity on his fastball. Clearly, both pitchers would take us into that most dangerous time in baseball, the seventh inning.

In the American League, if a starting pitcher is on his game, the seventh inning will surely decide how firmly he’s on it. It will be the third trip through the order, and the pitch count will be nudging ninety. All flaws will now be revealed.

Verlander handles his half with dispatch. His fifth strikeout of the day is on a curveball that freezes Kevin Youkilis down to his ankles. Ryan Sweeney is retired looking at another of these plummeting curves. Twelve pitches, two strikeouts and a fly out, case closed.

Lester starts off with two swift outs. Funny thing about two swift outs—it seems to suggest a kind of power, a strict momentum that cannot be budged, but there is no such thing as one out causing the next.

Indeed. Jhonny Peralta doubles to left on the first pitch. It could be one of those classic cleavings-open to which seventh innings are subject. Or it could be an idle moment in the game. But now Avila is up for another try, lefty against lefty. He looks at a strike, perhaps unwilling to flounder as he did in the last at-bat. Accepts a ball, then lunges grotesquely at an outside pitch to bring the count to 1-2. Now he lays back while Lester tries to bait him again. Two balls bring the count full. Is Avila ready to start his 2012 season now, or is he still hunting for that maddeningly elusive timing that spring training did not restore?

Ah. The pitch is up on the outside edge of the plate and Avila shoots the thing deep into the leftfield corner. Cody Ross gallops to overrun the ball, which thuds to a stop by the 345’ mark as the first run of the game scores.

This hit was on Lester’s 103rd pitch, another irritating piece of evidence in support of pitch count limits. But this game seems to showcase the Seventh Inning Turning Point still more. Does the arc of the game wear pitchers down, the sheer concentration on at-bat after at-bat? Is it trips through the order, which bends in favor of the hitter’s adjustments? Does the pitcher-catcher game plan begin to unravel under game conditions? Or is it, of course, pure exertion, as the pitch limits partisans say?

I have only the limited insights of a fan, but I don’t believe that it’s a physical wall these well-conditioned pitchers hit. I think it has more to do with the subtle, constant, mental agility that it takes to play baseball—refining a swing, rethinking a pitch sequence, anticipating a location. The game lasts nine innings not to repeat itself but to grow into pattern upon pattern.

Lester bars the door against further damage. It’s a 1-0 game, and no margin is smaller. Verlander strides out for the eighth and crosses the 100 pitch mark while easily retiring the side in order. The Red Sox, however, have finished with Lester and send up Vicente Padilla, whose first pitch becomes a triple off Austin Jackson’s bat. Valentine gets to move his bullpen chess pieces during a grinding, pesky inning which includes Prince Fielder using his uppercut in nearly golf mode to produce the sac fly necessary to score Jackson. 2-0 Tigers.

Cue Jose Valverde to whip through the bullpen gate, make a knees-to-chest energy hop, and take the mound. Everything is as it should be. Verlander has picked up right where he left off and so should Valverde, who completed 49 consecutive save chances last year.

He faces Dustin Pedroia, a player so scrappy he’s exhausting. Pedroia is in a mood to tussle, and he drives up the count and then knocks a hit into the right field gap for a double. Pure Pedroia, and you have to admire a man who revels in the fact that there’s no clock in baseball.

Well, the inning unravels and pretty soon Valverde is looking at a mess he can’t clean up. I saw him take things to the brink last season yet always pull back in time. Today, he allows Ortiz to hit a sac fly to score Pedroia and just as we’re all congratulating ourselves on that go-ahead run Fielder punched in last inning, Valverde serves up a triple to Sweeney that ties the game.

You can’t do worse by a starter than let him pile up eight innings and seven Ks, while allowing two hits, one walk and no runs, and then take away his win. But it’s gone now.

The Tigers now try to make amends for this tragedy, and after starting off the bottom of the ninth with an out, Peralta raps out a single. Avila is up again, which seems to be the signal that we’re at another key juncture in this game. He spends a good bit of the at-bat fouling pitches off—I really feel I can hear the gears grinding as he tries to find his form so he can emerge from this defensive posture. Now he finds that last little bit of inspiration and singles to left. The Tigers are back to having an opportunity.

I’ll skip over the pitching changes and intermediate batters. Our hero is revealed: it’s Austin Jackson, who goes 3 for 5 by ripping a sharp liner past the diving third baseman to score the run.

If winning is everything, all is well in Detroit. The danger’s past, and we really only had to survive suspense for a half inning. I got the outcome I wanted, but I’m not so sure winning feels like everything right now.

The win in the score book actually goes to Valverde, along with an awfully big meatball of an ERA—he’ll be trying to digest that 18.00 for quite some weeks. Verlander sees his team in the win column and gets to carry around a 0.375 WHIP and 0.00 ERA for a while. What he doesn’t get is the win.

But we do. If winning is everything, it’s a dull and brutal and black and white world. I enjoyed the journey much more than the result today.

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[games 108, 109, 110] Win Some, Lose Some

On Friday, the Twins scored 8 runs—impressive, but insufficient to beat the Tigers. Saturday they scored 11 but needed only 1 of them. Behind Carl Pavano in his first start for the Twins, the team had a convincing shutout win against Tiger ace Justin Verlander. And on Sunday they scored 7, but needed at least two more as they lost the battle of clutch hitting to the Tigers’ Placido Polanco.

Saturday’s game was a little reward for all occasionally suffering Twins fans. We had big hits (including Joe Mauer’s 20th home run) and pesky hits (including RBI from usual lightweights Delmon Young and Alexi Casilla). We had fielding fun, from a taut double play that kept the fifth inning from exploding to Morneau’s Plastic Man stretch to keep his foot on the bag for an inning-ending out with men on second and third.

And we had a very strong start from Pavano. The Indians cast him off for a player to be named later, and it will take a lot more than this sharp start to convince me that a pitcher with a single great season (2004, with the Marlins, 18-8, 3.00 ERA) and a depressing injury history is going to revitalize our rotation.

But Saturday, Pavano mowed down the Tigers with tidy, video-game style ease. Pavano left plenty of time for the Twins to knock in some runs, but after a two-run homer from Mauer in the first, Verlander put the lid back on quite tightly. It looked like a pitcher’s duel until the fifth.

That’s when the bottom of the order constructed a single run out of a Michael Cuddyer double, a sac from Delmon Young, a head’s up walk from Nick Punto, and a booming sac fly from Alexi Casilla.

No reason for Verlander to quake in his boots over that, but in the sixth Twins came knocking again, scoring two. With the clobbering rhythm finally in hand, the Twins collected three more runs in the seventh, this time off reliever Chris Lambert, and another three in the eighth.

There were several fine bits of baseball in there, including Denard Span going 5 for 5 and Orlando Cabrera keeping his hitting streak going at 18 games. He left the hit on his to-do list all the way until the eighth when he unleashed a triple that scored two. Every player had a hit and all but two had RBI. Great baseball.

I enjoyed the game and soon found myself coasting on that happy little wave of energy that comes when your team’s ahead and seems to belong there. The game had real suspense to the halfway point, so don’t let that 11-0 score lull you. Even when the Twins began rolling up runs, they weren’t annihilating the Tigers, just getting two or three runs per inning. But through all this, I felt the elation of victory.

Now, let’s review. Yesterday, the Twins lost. They’re 5-1/2 games out of first in a very winnable division, but have never closed hard on the lead. They are mired at or below .500. Why am I so delighted by what may be one measly win?

When your team wins in the regular season, you feel, at minimum, that the basic balance of the universe is restored. This is how it’s supposed to be. Root on your team and collect the reward. Winning in the postseason when the stakes are higher is a whole other matter, when your delight is ostensibly justified. But a random game in a random series is an idle, sweet form of happiness, like a break in the weather when the sun and breeze shake every sorrow out of you.

On Sunday, of course, the universe tumbles into trouble again. The Twins staked out an early lead but los tigres answered back; when the Twins crept back to tie it 6-6, Polanco’s RBI single in the eighth put Detroit ahead. Clete Thomas followed with an insurance RBI, and the Tigers needed the coverage. The Twins came up short in the ninth with a single run.

I did not hurtle down to the pit of despair, but it sure wasn’t as pleasant as Saturday’s romp. Both teams traded chances all game long, so I never had to lose hope, but I never got to shake doubt either.

Again, let’s review. The season is in its later stages, and there’s no longer any suspense—we don’t have a great pitching rotation, there are some hitting liabilities in the infield, and the team, while presentable, has shown no propensity for catching on fire. The Twins can’t be counted out, but they used their weekend showdown with the division leader to end up 5 games back.

And with all that, I stay idiotically hopeful. Coasting along on the lift of Saturday’s blow-out, I arrange my weekend memories conveniently. Hey, we scored 26 runs! (Yeah, but ended up 1-2.) Scott Baker pitched pretty well Sunday for the first three innings! (Yeah, but was out in the fifth after allowing 6 earned runs.) We had hits from everybody, and Orlando Cabrera has a 19-game hitting streak! (Yeah, but see how many wins those hits and runs got us.)

Being a fan means oscillating between wins and losses and, often as not, using one perspective to view them both. I could take the dark view, you know, and laugh at that 11-run game as the aberration it is. The only thing a fan can’t do is stay perfectly rational. I mean, it would be pointless, right?

[game 35] Sweep

It isn’t fair, but it is baseball. Justin Verlander pitched a gem for the Tigers this afternoon, but he didn’t get the win. He threw a career-high 13 strikeouts, and he sent the Twins down in weary rows, but he didn’t get the win.

Now, that’s largely because pitchers can only create conditions in which a win is possible; they can’t secure it. Wins make a crisp, intense stat, but they don’t illuminate a pitcher’s skill. A team wins or loses.

Verlander didn’t get a win, but neither did Scott Baker, who had yet another outing with one bad inning in it. This one was grievous, but let’s pause for a moment to consider the other five he pitched.

The game was scoreless until the sixth. I don’t mean scoreless like no one has gotten around to it, but scoreless as in this is an impossible goal. Both pitchers faced close to the minimum batters. Verlander tended to mow his down with Ks, while Baker courted fly outs, to foul or fair territory, but in both cases, the hitters were stone silent.

I had only the radio to guide me through the game this afternoon, so I’m limited to the cerebral, aerial view. That means I can gloss over Baker’s troubled sixth. The Tigers batted around, and between Brandon Inge’s lead off single to his strikeout to end the inning, five runs were scored.

Baker has the stuff but he seems to write singles and not albums. A full game, in which the pitcher must balance highs and lows, just seems out of reach. He kept the Mariners quiet for his first win last Friday, but that’s the only time a bad inning hasn’t bollixed Baker. There’s every reason to hope he’ll overcome this, but the pattern is getting hard to ignore.

Down 5-0, the Twins could have let the game go. After all, they had just finished a marathon about 12 hours before. Instead, they let Verlander slice and dice them for sixth innings and then start the seventh with his pitch count showing. Thirteen strikeouts will cost you in the pitch department.

Verlander fans Joe Crede to start the seventh, but then allows a single and a walk. It’s not as if he’s crumbling to the ground, but he’s well past the typical pitch allowance so Jim Leyland brings in Bobby Seay to handle Denard Span.

Span singles to load them bases. If you’re a Detroit fan, you can still see rays of light. They need eight more outs with a five-run cushion. Maybe they could part with a run or two here and just tidy up later.

Seay does the single ugliest thing he can do: he walks in a run as Matt Tolbert refuses to nibble on stuff out of the strike zone. Joe Mauer hits into a fielder’s choice, scoring one run, and the Twins have created a pretty throbbing nightmare for Seay.

Justin Morneau raps out a single, and batter by batter we’re tapping in runs. When Jason Kubel launches one to the center field fence, the Twins radio announcer is saddened to see it classified a ground-rule double. Only one run can score on it, but the Twins are now down by a single run, 4-5.

Leyland switches pitchers, but the spell isn’t broken. Zach Miner walks Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede, last night’s walkoff grand slam hero, is up.

The time all he has to produce is a single, but it scores two and the Twins, of all things, have the lead 6-5.

And that’s the game. Six good innings by Verlander, and one horrific one he starts and the bullpen finishes. Five good innings by Baker, and one disastrous one. No other scoring, very little other hitting.

The radio is sometimes a great window into a game, but it can be hard to put a pitcher’s duel into words. The majority of the game was pitching excellence, which takes the form of hitting silence. How do you describe a void?

But what did feel clear all along was that the Tigers had Verlander at his peak on the mound. A sweep of the Tigers would be asking too much, particularly after last night’s comeback. (And let this record show that I had to miss Tuesday’s game, but Twins win it was.)

Winning wasn’t possible, and then it was. The Twins are starting to show the grit and game-long concentration it takes to win a series, sweep a series, and perhaps win a division. That’s a long way off, since this victory brings the team a mere whisker above .500, but the ingredients of winning baseball are starting to show.

This is the first series sweep of the year, and it’s against a division heavy. Since we’ve spent the whole season below or near .500, we can’t start reading turnaround in our tea leaves, but these three wins have all shown some new strengths in the bullpen and the power game.

We get to test them over the weekend against the Yankees, and in that new ballpark, the one that seems to make the homers bloom to right. Well, of all things, we may have a lineup ready to capitalize.