Aced out: Verlander's confidence takes hit

Aced out: Verlander's confidence takes hit

SAN FRANCISCO -- When the second of Pablo Sandoval's three home runs took flight Wednesday evening at AT&T Park, Justin Verlander watched it soar with confidence, assuming left fielder Delmon Young would snag it at the warning track. As the ball continued climbing, a television camera zoomed in on Verlander's face. The crowd buzzed. The confidence vanished.

"Wow," Verlander mouthed as the ball slipped over the wall.

What more could he say? It was the most significant blow against Verlander in arguably the worst postseason start of his career, which dropped the Tigers to an 8-3 loss to the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series. Heavy favorites heading into the evening, the Tigers held their most significant Game 1 advantage on the mound, where so few hitters had managed to wow Verlander this season.

World Series

And yet, as center fielder Austin Jackson admitted afterward, "He's human, too."

"He just wasn't himself throughout the whole thing," pitching coach Jeff Jones added.

It was not simply the fact that Verlander fell to 0-3 in three career World Series starts that seemed wow-worthy; it was the fact that he submitted, in many respects, one of his least effective performances in years. The reigning American League Cy Young Award winner's four-inning outing marked his shortest in a game unaffected by weather since June 16, 2009, when he also lasted four innings against the Cardinals. His 38 pitches in the third inning were his most in any frame this season.

Ace's kryptonite
A look at Justin Verlander's three World Series starts.
Date Gm Opp. Res. IP H ER BB SO HR
10/24/2012 1 @ S.F. 8-3 L 4 6 5 1 4 2
10/27/2006 5 @ Stl. 4-2 L 6 6 1 3 4 0
10/21/2006 1 Stl. 7-2 L 5 6 6 2 8 2

Entering Game 1, Verlander had allowed just one home run with two outs all summer; he did it twice in Game 1. He had given up four career home runs on 0-2 counts and none this season, until Sandoval tagged him for one in the first.

He was, in short, the anti-Verlander, wowed on a night when most expected him to do the wowing. It was shocking; Verlander had spent the past month polishing his reputation as the best pitcher in baseball, going 7-0 with a 0.69 ERA, 52 strikeouts and 11 walks over his last seven starts -- three of them in the playoffs. He entered Game 1 having given up four earned runs over his last 54 1/3 innings.

Then he gave up five in four innings Wednesday.

"I just didn't execute tonight," Verlander said. "It was kind of a battle for me from the get-go, and they took advantage of that."

The trouble indeed began early, when Verlander did not elevate an 0-2 fastball as much as he wanted, allowing Sandoval to park it over the center-field wall. Two innings later, after a second run scored on Marco Scutaro's single, Sandoval smashed a better-placed heater to left for a two-run shot.

Verlander was hardly Sandoval's only victim; the San Francisco third baseman later took Al Alburquerque deep for his World Series record-tying third home run of the game. But he was supposed to be nobody's victim at all.

Dubious double
Pitchers to take the loss in All-Star Game and Game 1 of World Series in the same year
Pitcher Team Year
Justin Verlander Detroit Tigers 2012
C.J. Wilson Texas Rangers 2011
Dock Ellis Pittsburgh Pirates 1971
Don Newcombe Brooklyn Dodgers 1949
Mort Cooper St. Louis Cardinals 1942

"He's one of the best pitchers in the big leagues," Sandoval said. "In this situation, you're going to face the best. I just go in there and don't think too much or try to do too much, get a pitch you can hit, take advantage of the mistakes he is making."

There were more than a few. The Giants scored a fifth time on pitcher Barry Zito's RBI single in the fourth inning, after Verlander displayed an uncharacteristic lack of control in walking leadoff man Brandon Belt. The main issue, he said, was an overabundance of left-to-right run on his fastball, which caused some inside heaters to drift back over the middle of the plate.

"He's not going to throw a no-hitter every time," catcher Alex Avila said, "but when a pitcher's going through struggles like that, he goes through his mind what has worked in the past. Sometimes you're able to make the adjustment quickly. Sometimes it takes a little longer and sometimes you can't. He just kind of struggled with that all game."

It is developing into a troubling trend for Verlander, who was only 23 years old when he lost his first two World Series games back in 2006. Six years later, heading into Game 1, Verlander spoke about how much he has matured as a pitcher.

Perhaps that came into play in the aftermath of the loss, when an upbeat Verlander even cracked a few jokes while dissecting his performance. He is not overly concerned, he said, because of how well his rotation-mates have been pitching.

"Is it disappointing? Yeah," Verlander said. "Would you like to have won Game 1? Absolutely. But the three guys behind me have been doing pretty doggone well as well. It's not the end of the world by any means."

It was just, well, wow. And if the Tigers lose this World Series to the Giants, they will look back at Game 1 as the "wow" that helped it happen.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.