“You labored, it wasn’t a typical Justin Verlander game.”
That was TBS’s Craig Sager, just after Phil Coke made Justin Verlander’s Game 3 performance officially stand up: 8.1 innings, three hits, no walks, just one run.
It’s not good enough for Justin Verlander. Justin Verlander only struck out three Yankees; never mind that the Tigers’ ace held the New York Yankees to one run over 8.1 innings in Game 3 of the ALCS, we bolt to attention because he didn’t record enough strikeouts.
This is Justin Verlander’s level.
Really, Sager is absolutely correct — as are the others to express the sentiment, like Verlander himself and manager Jim Leyland. This was not the typical Justin Verlander game.
He cruised early, retiring the first nine Yankees he saw and notching two of his three strikeouts. “What was working for me? Pretty much everything,” Verlander responded when asked about early-game success.
Mostly, it was the fastball, flashed on 27 of the 33 pitches those first nine Yankees saw. Verlander tossed 19 for strikes — three whiffs — against eight balls as he threw six first-pitch strikes. Even though his fastball wasn’t quite up to its typical triple-digit peak yet, it’s a more than formidable pitch at 95 — deadly on the corners, but still able to get outs when it misses over the plate.
The short work was over; from here on Verlander honestly labored. It took 99 pitches to record his final 16 after just 33 for the first nine. Verlander lost control of the first-pitch strike, throwing just seven to 19 batters faced beyond the fourth.
“The approach was to get ahead and be agressive… kind of went out the window in the 4th,” Verlander said in his postgame press conference.
Evidence of the plan was still there in his pitch selection by count:
After sticking to the fastball completely, Verlander engaged his secondary pitches as the Yankees took their second and third hacks against him. Verlander threw 47 pitches in the last six innings with either two strikes or in an 0-1 count — 12 curveballs, eight changeups and five sliders (or 25 total off-speed pitches) against 22 fastballs. When he owned the advantage, Verlander aggressively used his off-speed pitches to try and end at-bats.
On 33 other occasions, Verlander found himself behind in the count (excluding full). He threw five changeups and one slider.
He exaggerated in the post-game presser: “I was behind everybody and had to throw fastballs… fastballs almost down the middle.”
He’s not lying:
Joe Girardi‘s reformulated lineup didn’t show any more life than its previous postseason arrangements. Still, this was a group featuring seven hitters with a 100 wRC+ or better against right-handers since 2008. It featured three hitters at 129 or better — Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. They’ve shown they can hit before.
But maybe this postseason the Yankees can’t hit any pitch down the middle. More likely, Verlander’s fastball is so good he can afford to live down the middle and get away with it like no other pitcher in baseball. Of the 11 fastballs closest to the zone, Verlander generated just one swinging strike, but three were taken, five were fouled off, two went for outs and only one became a hit.
As Leyland said, “He made them mishit the ball pretty good.” Verlander’s velocity kept rising. He went from 94.7 in the first six innings to 97.7 in the final three, topping out at 99.3 in the ninth. That is where mishits are born.
Tuesday wasn’t the Verlander we’re necessarily used to seeing. Tuesday wasn’t Verlander at his his best, wasn’t the one we think of when we think Cy Young Award Winner Justin Verlander. He missed on some of his pitches and he was forced to work in the middle of the zone and pitch to contact instead of inducing whiff after whiff.
But this is what makes Justin Verlander the best pitcher in baseball right now. Even when he’s off or he doesn’t pitch his typical game, he’ll still throw 8.1 innings and allow just three hits and one run in Game 3 against the Yankees.