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Verlander not great on this day, but good enough

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Verlander has now pitched into the seventh inning in eight straight starts, and 17 of his past 18. (AP)  
Verlander has now pitched into the seventh inning in eight straight starts, and 17 of his past 18. (AP)  

The fastball never once touched 100 mph.

He couldn't throw his curve for a strike on demand.

For the first time in his entire 194-start major-league career, he failed to hold a four-run lead.

This is a 20-game winner? This is Justin Verlander?

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This is the guy who had me searching through the channels on my cable system, clicking past endless hurricane coverage before he finally appeared on a Spanish-language station?

Yes, yes and yes.

As they're starting to say in Detroit, Verlander is must-see TV, even if he really wasn't in Saturday's 6-4 win over the Twins. As they're starting to say in Detroit, Verlander is an MVP candidate, even if he didn't really look like it Saturday.

We watch because he might throw a no-hitter. He goes on the MVP ballot (for me, high up on the ballot, but not yet at the top) because he's as close as there is to a guaranteed win.

Even when he's not at his best. Even when he stunningly turns a 4-0 lead in the fifth into a 4-4 tie in the sixth.

Sure, he needed help from his hitters (a little more than usual). Sure, he needed help from his bullpen (also a little more than usual).

But Verlander won, for the eighth start in a row, and for the 16th time in 18 starts in an incredible stretch that began May 29 (four starts after his no-hitter).

As so many have pointed out, a starting pitcher's win total depends on help.

Without Delmon Young's tie-breaking single in the seventh inning Saturday, Verlander isn't yet a 20-game winner for the first time in his career. Without another save from Jose Valverde, Verlander doesn't get a win Saturday.

But here's what the stat guys never want to acknowledge: Verlander gets more wins because he stays in games. He gives his hitters a chance to score more runs, and he limits the innings for the vulnerable middle relievers.

He's pitched into the seventh inning in eight straight starts, and 17 of the last 18. Saturday's start was just the second since May in which he didn't finish seven innings.

His run support in 28 starts before Saturday was just 5.01, 83rd among regular big-league starters, just behind Dan Haren, the Angels' "hard-luck" starter.

But Verlander is baseball's first 20-game winner this year, the first pitcher to reach 20 wins before the end of August since Curt Schilling did it with the 2002 Diamondbacks (and the first to do it for the Tigers since Mickey Lolich in 1971).

He's the first Tiger with 20 wins in a season since Bill Gullickson in 1991.

Maybe that shouldn't matter. Verlander won 19 games in 2009, and he won 18 games in both 2007 and 2010. Is 20 really that much different? Is it significant at all?

Verlander couldn't hold a four-run lead for the first time in his career, but still managed to earn his 20th win. (AP)  
Verlander couldn't hold a four-run lead for the first time in his career, but still managed to earn his 20th win. (AP)  
Yes, in the same way that we all watched when Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit, but weren't nearly as interested in the 2,999th or the 3,001st.

That one hit didn't make Jeter a better player, didn't turn him into a Hall of Famer. But the round number gave us a reason to focus on his career, a reason to notice him.

Justin Verlander isn't a great pitcher because he's a 20-game winner. But because he's a 20-game winner, he gets an extra headline, an extra column written about him, an extra minute on SportsCenter or the nightly news, an extra chance to acknowledge that he's great.

No matter what you think of the win stat, pitchers themselves cherish 20-win seasons. Managers change rotations to give their aces the best shot at 20, and pitchers celebrate 20 wins as a real accomplishment.

Because it is one.

A few nights back, CC Sabathia pitched into the eighth inning against the A's, and gave up just three runs. It was by no means a bad start, but Sabathia was upset with himself because he didn't hold a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning.

In his mind, he cost his team a win, and he wasn't happy about it.

The best starting pitchers think that way. They understand that not everything is under their control, but they believe that their job is to win.

Years ago, when I first started covering the Tigers, I remember a game where Walt Terrell lost 3-1. Someone suggested he did everything he could, and he quickly said, "No, I didn't. I could have won 1-0."

I remember another game, and a starter I won't name, who reacted to a tough loss by saying, "I've come to understand that I have little control over the outcome of the game."

Terrell was right. The other guy was wrong.

A starting pitcher doesn't completely control whether he wins or loses. But the best starting pitchers have the best chance of winning, and Justin Verlander might well be the best there is in baseball right now.

He's a 20-game winner, and deservedly so.

And so what that the 20th win wasn't a masterpiece.

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