Astros' Verlander threw an old-fashioned pitching gem in ALCS Game 2 vs. Yankees
Well, maybe not like they used to, but it could be a while before we see something like that again
HOUSTON -- What's become of playoff pitching at the individual level traces back to a growing recognition that starters get worse the more times opposing hitters see them in a given game. That's especially the case the third time through the order, whether because of mounting familiarity or mounting fatigue or both. Last October, we saw a sea change of sorts, possibly starting in Cleveland with Terry Francona and Andrew Miller. Lockdown relievers came in earlier and earlier. Other hard-throwers with no more than two pitches followed. The workloads of starters in the postseason faded. You can't take such an approach across the sprawl of the six-month regular season. In the playoffs, though, with extra off days and the end in sight, the relief corps can take on more of a load. And so they have.
In Game 2 of the ALCS in Houston, though, onlookers were treated to a pitching performance that evoked an era that seems at once near at hand and almost hopelessly out of reach. Central to the Astros' thrilling win over the Yankees in Game 2 (HOU 2, NYY 1) was veteran right-hander Justin Verlander ...
The 13 strikeouts are notable, sure, but that's commendable without being extraordinary these days. What is extraordinary is the raw volume of Verlander's work in Game 2. Madison Bumgarner in the 2016 NL Wild Card Game is the last starter to go the distance in a postseason game. Bumgarner's was also the last playoff start in which a pitcher faced 32 or more batters. To find a playoff starter who threw more than Verlander's 124 in Game 2, you must go back to ... Verlander in Game 3 of the 2012 ALCS. Coincidentally, that was also a 2-1 win at home over the Yankees.
Verlander's no stranger to such feats of doggedness (he also registered a 133-pitch effort in Game 5 of the 2011 ALCS), but what gets lost in the proximity of, say, Bumgarner's start is how fast and how much things have changed. Coming into Game 2, we'd had 40 starts in the 2017 postseason. Of those 40, just six went seven innings (and none longer than that). Merely half of those 40 starts lasted five inning or more. Sure, there's some starting pitcher ineffectiveness baked into that figure, but there's also a lot of aggressive "" in there. In the 2016 playoffs, just 41 out of 70 starts went five or more innings, and Bumgarner's was the only complete game.
What's also striking is the circumstances of Verlander's going the distance. Prior to Game 2, Houston manager A.J. Hinch talked about the depth of his bullpen and how many arms he could go to to close out games. He's not wrong, of course, as the Astros do indeed have a lot of capable relief arms. It was also tie game against a powerful offense. In the ninth, the Yankees had their 2-3-4 hitters up, including Didi Gregorius -- i.e., the only Yankee didn't strike out on Saturday. He'd be facing them for the fourth time this day. Perhaps Hinch noted that Verlander ended the eighth with a swinging strike from Brett Gardner on a fastball that hit 97. In that ninth, though, Verlander took longer between pitches. He threw more breaking balls. He yielded a line-drive single with one out to, yes, Gregorius. Brian McCann plodded out for his only mound conference of the day. Again, the score was notched at 1-1. Hinch didn't blink. Most important, neither did Verlander.
It would be very 2017 to get lost in all those strikeouts, but what's special about this game is that what Verlander achieved -- and what Hinch allowed him to achieve -- flies so very much in the face of recent baseball history. The easy thing to do would be to take the long walk to the mound and yank a possible Hall of Famer who probably wouldn't care for such a decision. That's what managers are expected to do in this, the age of the playoff reliever. The risky thing would be to let Verlander keep going despite all the things we know about letting one man stare down 32 batters in a span of three hours or so.
"I was fortunate to have a manager in Jim Leyland who realized that I got stronger as games went on and let me continue to pitch," Verlander said after Game 2. "I'm thankful for that."
He went to explain that, after the Aug. 31 trade that sent him to Houston, he had a conversation with Hinch. Hinch told him he didn't plan on "trying to shorten my leash or take me out early" as long as Verlander was honest with him about how he felt in those late innings. Consider it a mutual promise between pitcher and manager.
Whatever it is, pitcher and manager on Saturday gave us something we'll not likely see again -- at least maybe until the next time Verlander goes to work with his manager watching on, possibly submerging his instincts.
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