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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Verlander capitalizes on only chance to make impact in series


DETROIT -- There were those who said the Tigers couldn't beat the Yankees unless Justin Verlander started every game.

Well, guess what?

Jim Leyland's trying. Verlander has started, technically, two of the three games in this series. What the Tigers liked most was his second start, Monday night. Much to the dismay of the Yankees, it lasted far longer than the one soggy Game 1 inning he worked.

Remember how we all debated which team Friday's early release day dinged the worst? The Tigers, who were reduced to using Verlander once instead of twice, or the Yankees, who could get only one start out of Sabathia?

I have an answer now: It's the Yankees who are hosed. But good, too. Because after Verlander threw everything but the bathroom sink at them in a 5-4 thriller in Game 3 on Monday night -- you might be familiar with a different expression but, sorry, I'm pretty sure Verlander threw the kitchen sink at Alex Rodriguez during one of A-Rod's particularly inept at-bats -- who do you think New York manager Joe Girardi is reduced to handing the ball to for Game 4?

A.J. Burnett, that's who.

ALDS: Yankees at Tigers
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Please stifle your chuckles until you get outside. (Or, in the case of you Yankees fans, please take two Tums immediately and proceed to the rubber room.)

It didn't have to be that way. The Yankees pounced on Verlander quickly Friday, shocking the sellout Comerica Park crowd of 43,581 by striking for two early runs. Nobody around here is used to seeing that. Verlander, with 24 wins and the pitching Triple Crown, is a shoo-in to win the AL Cy Young award this year, maybe the MVP and, after that, probably Time magazine's Man of the Year, a Nobel Peace Prize, an Oscar, an Emmy and, possibly, a Grammy.

Once recovered from that uncharacteristic first inning, given the way Verlander took off in the second and steamrolled through the middle innings against one of the game's most potent lineups, pencil him in for one of People magazine's Sexiest Men Alive when that issue arrives, too.

"I think what I appreciated most tonight was the way he bounced back," Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge said. "Anyone else could have gotten excited, mad. ..."

Excited is what Verlander's manager, Leyland, thought happened to him in the first inning, and again in the seventh when his ace shockingly gave up two more runs to turn a 4-2 Detroit lead into a 4-4 nailbiter.

"There were a couple of times during the game when he got over-amped," Leyland said.

Though the Tigers have become accustomed to him -- as, I suppose, Italian villagers probably did long ago with Leonardo da Vinci -- it was still hard not to watch Verlander on Monday and simply marvel.

Always able to touch 100 when he wants to, Verlander hit 100 or 101 mph on the radar gun 15 times during his eight-inning, 120 pitch, series-changing night, including, unusually, twice in the first inning.


Part of it, no doubt, was after Friday's debacle, Verlander simply couldn't wait to get going.

But part of it, too, was the way the Yankees approached him. Derek Jeter took a hack at his very first pitch of the game and chopped a single up the middle. Curtis Granderson a triple. Verlander was on his heels two batters in.

"They jumped out on his fastball early like it was almost make or break," Inge said.

Maybe Burnett was in the back of their minds.

"I actually told somebody before the game, I knew [Jeter] was going to swing first pitch," Verlander said. "It was up a little bit and over the middle of the plate. That was just a mistake."

Once past the first, he didn't make another mistake until the seventh. From the second through the sixth, he put on a clinic. His fastballs left vapor trails. His curves bent like bananas. His changeups were somewhere in the middle.

He struck out four in a row in the fourth and fifth, then stretched that to seven of nine Yankees during one incredible stretch.

"I wouldn't say it's one pitch in particular," Gardner said. "You might as well say all of them. He's that good. He's that dominant."

It took Verlander 22 pitches to get through the first inning. Yankees starter CC Sabathia needed 28. It was not the classic duel so many anticipated. And the Yankees charged that Sabathia was getting squeezed by plate ump Gerry Davis.

Anyway, where things turned around for Verlander, quickly, was over the next few innings. From the second through the fifth innings, Verlander breezed on only 37 pitches. Sabathia needed 71.

And you thought time of possession was a key statistic only in football.

"The most important thing was, he settled down and started throwing up zeroes," starter Max Scherzer said. "He had a quick second, third, fourth, fifth ... he was efficient.

"Not only was he dominant, but he forced CC to keep coming back out quickly. That allowed our offense to keep it moving, and I think that's why we were able to keep it going. We were constantly at the plate."

Verlander again appeared, to use Leyland's word, "over-amped" in the seventh when, with two outs, he walked Jorge Posada and then drilled Russell Martin in the ribs with a fastball clocked at 100.

"Ninety-five, 100, who cares?" quipped Martin.

That's the inning the Yankees scored the two tying runs, but when Delmon Young homered in the bottom of the seventh, Leyland sent Verlander out for one more inning. The ace's determination was evident during a two-out walk issued to A-Rod: He threw the third baseman five pitches during the at-bat that were either 100 or 101.

This as Verlander was approaching his finish line of 120 pitches.

From there, it was a matter of inhaling slowly ... and exhaling even more slowly. Talk about tension. Both clubs knew Game 3 stood a good chance of being the turning point of this series.

"From the seventh inning on, every inning I had to keep checking my pulse," Scherzer said. "I was so nervous watching that game."

I'm pretty sure the only reason Verlander didn't start Game 2 was because Scherzer swore on a stack of bibles that he would throw a gem. Otherwise, who knows? Maybe Verlander would have started all three of these games, the way he's going.

I kid, of course. The Tigers are on their own, now. They're going to have to earn one more win against the Yankees without Verlander. Before this game, Leyland hinted that his ace could be available in relief if there is a deciding Game 5.

But following 120 hard pitches Monday, Verlander is probably finished for this series.

"I would say so, yes," Leyland said. "I wouldn't do anything foolish. I try not to do anything foolish with my pitchers, let alone with an arm like that.

"You saw what a talent that is."


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