Verlander out to etch name among playoff legends

Verlander out to etch name among playoff legends

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander has already cemented his place in Tigers lore. The World Series is the only stage left to conquer for the hard-throwing ace to be elevated to the level of baseball legend, a pitcher whose poise and prowess will be remembered and cited for decades.

Sitting inside an interview room in the bowels of the ballpark in the Yankee Stadium earlier in this American League Championship Series, Jim Leyland caught a glimpse of such a man, and the Detroit manager immediately shifted the direction of the insight he was currently providing.

ALCS

"I see a guy in the back of the room, Jack Morris," Leyland said, referring to the former Tigers and Twins ace. "He concentrated pretty good in Minnesota in the Metrodome, the loudest place I have been."

Baseball fans with even a modest knowledge of the game's history surely know about Morris' 10-inning masterpiece in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Morris hoisted Minnesota on his broad shoulders and led the club to a Fall Classic triumph over Atlanta. It was a remarkable performance that fell in line with all-time postseason heroics.

Verlander is currently carving out his own place in playoff history.

Tale of the Tape: Game 3
Justin Verlander
Tigers
Phil Hughes
Yankees
2012 regular season
Overall: 33 GS, 17-8, 2.64 ERA, 60 BB, 239 K Overall: 32 GS, 16-13, 4.23 ERA, 46 BB, 165 K
Key stat: Two postseason starts, 16 innings, one earned run, 22 K and two wins Key stat: Struck out a postseason career-high eight batters, allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings in Game 4 of the ALDS
At Comerica Park
2012: 15 GS, 9-2, 1.65 ERA
Career: 113 GS, 66-25, 3.00 ERA
2012: 2 GS, 1-1, 3.38 ERA
Career: 5 GS, 3-2, 2.78 ERA
Against this opponent
2012: 3 GS, 1-1, 3.10 ERA
Career: 13 GS, 5-4, 3.74 ERA
2012: 2 GS, 1-1, 3.38 ERA
Career: 10 G, 8 GS, 5-4, 4.22 ERA
Loves to face: Mark Teixeira: 3-for-31, 10 K
Hates to face: Alex Rodriguez: 8-for-24, 3 HR, 7 RBI
Loves to face: Austin Jackson: 1-for-11, 4 K
Hates to face: Miguel Cabrera: 9-for-20, 4 HR, 9 RBI, 1.650 OPS
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: 7-1 with a 1.55 ERA in his last eight starts and has allowed one run or fewer in six of them. Why he'll win: His 16 wins tied for the team lead, and he's coming off one of the best starts of his postseason career.
Pitcher beware: Gave up five runs in nine total innings vs. New York in 2011 playoffs. Pitcher beware: Detroit hit righties as well as any team -- led MLB with .275 average, third with .771 OPS. Hughes' 35 HR allowed were tied for second most in MLB.
Bottom line: Win your home games, especially with your ace on the mound. Bottom line: Need Hughes to pitch the way he did in the ALDS.

On Tuesday, the leader of the Tigers' staff will take the mound at Comerica Park for a crucial Game 3 matchup with Phil Hughes and the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Detroit heads home with a 2-0 series lead, putting the club in a prime position to reach its first World Series since 2006.

That is the stage on which Verlander wants to perform.

He wants his name to be spoken in the same breath as World Series heroes like Morris, Roger Clemens or Curt Schilling.

"Obviously that's a dream of mine, to help pitch my team to a World Series championship," Verlander said in a conference call on Monday. "And that's a big reason why I admire those guys. You talk about Roger and Curt, and obviously everybody knows what they did in the postseason.

"I want to be associated with those guys, a guy that stepped up in the postseason for my team. I helped get us here to the second round, but my job is not over. Once my number is called and it is my turn to go, I go out there and try to give us a chance to win."

New York does not need to study a scouting report to know what Verlander is capable of doing to an opposing lineup. Verlander stole the national spotlight and put his ability on full display in a shutout win over Oakland on Thursday.

What Verlander did for Detroit was in the realm of Morris' feat.

"I am talking about me as a manager," Leyland said, "I never had anybody pitch a Game 5 or 7 more flawlessly than Verlander the other night. He was totally dominant. I think it has to do with maturity."

In a decisive Game 5 tilt against the A's in the AL Division Series, Verlander grabbed the reins and told the rest of the Tigers pitchers to take a night off. The right-hander spun nine brilliant innings -- with the raucous Oakland crowd on him with every pitch -- and shut out the A's with four hits scattered and 11 strikeouts notched.

Only one other pitcher in Tigers postseason history -- Joe Coleman in 1972 -- has lasted at least nine innings with no runs allowed and at least 11 strikeouts. There have been 16 such outings in postseason history. Before Verlander's gem, the last AL pitcher to achieve those marks in a playoff start was Clemens for the Yankees in 2000.

Verlander's gem was the first postseason shutout by an AL pitcher in a winner-take-all game since -- you guessed it -- Morris in 1991.

Morris, who will throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 3, has watched with awe as Verlander has developed into arguably the game's top pitcher.

"He's in his own level in modern-day baseball," Morris said. "He stands out with so much terrific talent. He's got pitches other guys don't have. ... He's got so much more than everybody else."

The scary thing is Morris believes Verlander will get better.

"At some point in his career," Morris said, "he's going to realize, 'I don't have what I once had.' But you know what? He might become a better pitcher. ... He's going to learn even more about what hitters are trying to do to him."

Lately, hitters have not been able to do much.

Verlander piled up a Division Series-record 22 strikeouts in two starts against the A's, who managed just one run in 16 innings against the fireballer. Dating back to Sept. 14, all Verlander has done is go 6-0 with a pristine 0.61 ERA, collecting 49 strikeouts across 44 innings for a Tigers team that claimed the AL Central crown.

In the regular season, Verlander went 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA for Detroit. Over the past two years, he has gone a combined 41-13 with a 2.52 ERA. Verlander has a pair of no-hitters under his belt, and has an AL Rookie of the Year Award (2006), along with Most Valuable Player (2011) and Cy Young Awards (2011), in his trophy case.

There have been so many masterpieces along the way, but Verlander's performance against Oakland stands out.

Take it from the pitcher himself.

"I think this is No. 1," Verlander said after Thursday's win. "The two no-hitters are obviously up there, but that's something a little bit different. This is win or go home. My team needs me. And I was able to go out there and have one of the better performances I've had."

Two more wins by the Tigers, and Verlander will have his chance on baseball's biggest stage.

"He's very special now," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "And he has a chance to do even more."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.