Verlander gives the Tigers a 1-0 edge (but it sure does feel like more)

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider
The A's are hoping to avoid seeing Justin Verlander again. (Getty Images)

DETROIT -- There's a chance Justin Verlander won't pitch again in this Division Series.

There's no chance we're done talking about him.

We can't avoid it, just as the A's couldn't avoid him Saturday. Just as they won't be able to avoid him in a Game 5, if there is a Game 5.

It's not true that the A's now need to win the next three games in a row if they want to continue their fantastic season, but it's easy to think that it is.

"Obviously, he's not unbeatable, because he was 16-8 this year," A's first baseman Brandon Moss said, after Verlander teased the A's but then beat them in a 3-1 Game 1 win.

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Obviously, he's not unbeatable. But do you want to risk your season on needing to beat him.

We can make too much of this. These are the playoffs, and every team has some good pitchers. Some teams have great pitchers.

But when a Rangers official was comparing potential playoffs opponents, before his team's season collapsed so abruptly, he put it simply.

"The Yankees don't have a Verlander," he said. "I'd rather face the Yankees, with [Yu] Darvish only available to pitch once, then face the Tigers and have Darvish facing Verlander twice in a five-game series."

We talked so much about whether the one-game wild-card format was fair to teams that won a playoff spot over a 162-game season. But Verlander's presence can make the best-of-5 format feel less than fair, because if he wins twice, your margin for error is gone.

Verlander gave up just three hits in seven innings Saturday. He struck out 11, including five in a row from the sixth into the seventh.

And the worst part for the A's?

"He wasn't at his best early," said Brandon Inge, the former Tiger who is on the A's disabled list. "I looked up, and he had 78 pitches in the fourth inning. We thought maybe we could bury him. Then he just took it to another level."

That's what Verlander does, of course. He throws harder as the game goes on. He gets less hittable.

"He's a different pitcher late in the game," Moss said. "He's a different pitcher with a lead. He's a different pitcher with runners in scoring position.

"He's already good, but he gets a whole lot better."

The pitch count was high early in Saturday's game in part because the A's like to take pitches, but also because Verlander is again trying to adjust. He had gotten in the habit of throwing 92-94 mph fastballs early in games to establish his command, but he found that hitters were taking advantage of that.

Now he's again trying to throw a little harder right from the start, but that can mean giving up a little of his command. It can mean that a 95 mph fastball on the fourth pitch of the day doesn't go exactly where he wants, and results in a Coco Crisp home run that gave the A's the lead.

The A's weren't thrilled with some of the calls by home-plate umpire Jim Reynolds ("To [Verlander's] credit, he utilized the strike zone he was given," Josh Reddick said), but they know better than to think that an umpire decided this game.

They also know that they'd rather advance without seeing Verlander again.

"We've got to put it in our minds that we don't want to get to Game 5," Reddick said.

That means winning Sunday, when they face Doug Fister. It means winning Tuesday in Oakland, when Anibal Sanchez is the Tigers starter. And then it means winning on Wednesday, against Max Scherzer.

It's that rotation that had people thinking that the Tigers could still win it all, even after their often-disappointing regular season.

Verlander can't do it by himself. But Verlander by himself changes how you think about a series, particularly a short series like this.

He's already affecting how we think about this series, and not just because his Game 1 win put the Tigers ahead.

He's not yet guaranteed another start. If all goes well for the Tigers, he doesn't start again until the next Game 1.

If all goes well for the A's, he doesn't start again until opening day 2013.

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