A year ago, almost to the day, I wrote about Justin Verlander and a theme I began to call the “Marilyn Munster.” You remember Marilyn Munster, she was the pretty blonde daughter of the Munsters, only the gag was that everyone in the family viewed her as the ugly one. It seems to me that there are certain stories out there that seem so obvious that you cannot believe anyone is missing it. And yet, you look around, and find that you might be the only one who sees Marilyn Munster that way.
That’s how I felt last year about Justin Verlander in the postseason. Verlander had come off this awe-inspiring season, a year where he won the Cy Young Award and the MVP, a year where he led the league in nine major pitching categories including wins, winning percentage, strikeouts, ERA, WHIP and innings pitched. He was as mesmerizing an act as any in sports with his 100-mph fastball and his absurd slider and his any-night-could-be-a-no-hitter aura — I flew to Kansas City to watch him pitch with Bill James on a day so hot shoes melted, and Verlander was jaw-dropping, it was like a spiritual experience, like going to the wailing wall or something.
And then the postseason began with Verlander front and center and … he just wasn’t that good. This seemed blindingly plain to me. He made four starts, and he posted a 5.31 ERA. He gave up four runs in each of his two extended starts. There were extenuating circumstances, rain delays and so on. And he still had thrilling moments, I mean, he didn’t overnight turn into Sloppy Thurston. He struck out some hitters, and he got out of some jams, and he clawed his way deep into games, and he threw a lot of pitches. But he clearly wasn’t the Justin Verlander who had just wowed America for a whole season.
Except … it seemed like a lot of people kept insisting that Verlander was having this miraculous postseason. “Superhuman” was in the headlines. People on Twitter were genuflecting. I couldn’t understand it. Was I seeing the wrong Marilyn Munster? Apparently so because along the way, I was getting battered by numerous people who were convinced for some reason that I DESPISED Verlander and was unwilling to see the subtlety of his brilliance, unwilling to acknowledge that the runs he was allowing in the postseason were merely obscuring his awesomeness, unwilling to see how unreasonable I was being in my Verlander judgments.
At some point in the article, I wrote this:
So now you ask what unreasonable thing I want from Justin Verlander? I want him to throw a shutout. I want him to throw eight innings, give up two hits and one run and strike out 14. I want him to pitch the way Chris Carpenter pitched with the series on the line, or for that matter the way Roy Halladay pitched. I want him to dominate, the way he dominated much of the season, the way he’s capable of dominating. I’m ready to celebrate him, I really am. If he comes into the seventh game of this series, and throws three overpowering shutout innings and sends the Tigers to the World Series, I PROMISE I will write a Justin Verlander is awesome post. If the Tigers go to the World Series and he throws a shutout or pitches some kind of amazing game, I PROMISE I will write a Justin Verlander is awesome post. I’m ready to do it. I’d LOVE to do it.
Well, it’s a year later … but I told you’d be happy to write it when it happened: Justin Verlander was absolutely awesome Thursday night in Oakland. He was terrific in Game 1 of the season, but Thursday was for the ages. It wasn’t just that he threw the complete game shutout, that he struck out 11, that he walked just one, that he allowed four hits (three singles), that he did not allow an A’s runner to reach third. All of this played into something larger which was: Oakland did not stand a chance.
This is the thing that Verlander and very few others can do to a lineup. There are a number pitchers who, on any given day, show up with great stuff and great location and can dominate hitters. But with Verlander, it’s something different, it’s something almost preordained. Nolan Ryan had that. There’s a great story about Ralph Garr leading off the White Sox in the late 1970s and going up to face Nolan Ryan. Garr struck out and then came back to the dugout and shouted, in his uniquely high and piercing voice, “Boys, we got NO SHOT tonight.”
That’s what Verlander can do too with his combination of power, command, composure and history. The A’s knew that it was going to be a challenge getting anything against Verlander if he was right. After only a couple of innings, they knew he was right. When the Tigers scored two in the third, the A’s knew — had to know — they were in a lot of trouble. Verlander promptly retired eight in a row, three by strikeout, only one carrying to the outfielder, and after a scratch single, Verlander ended the fifth with a gas-burning strikeout of Derek Norris — here’s 98 mph coming at you.
The sixth inning was 1-2-3. The seventh inning was 1-2-3 — the last two outs worth remembering because Verlander incapacitated Seth Smith with a 79-mph curveball and then blazed a 95-mph fastball that Josh Reddick could only watch for strike three. The Tigers by then had built up a 6-0 lead, so Verlander’s best was no longer necessary. Still, he stayed out there. He would through a couple of hits in the eight — two of the four hits he allowed all game — and in the ninth he struck out Stephen Drew for the fourth time, prodded two groundouts, and the Tigers were celebrating.
It’s strange … Verlander, in so many ways, was as good in 2012 as he was in 2011. He again led the league in innings and strikeouts. This year he also led the league with six complete games. If you want to have some fun with math, if you take away his horrible outing against Kansas City in August — when he gave up eight runs — his ERA would have been 2.40 … exactly the same as last year (and his WHIP would have been below 1 for the second straight year). As it was, his 2.64 ERA was second in the league, same with his strikeout-to-walk ratio, same with his WHIP, he allowed fewer home runs than he had in 2011, he was dazzling.
But there was this subtle theme going around that Verlander was good but not quite AS GOOD as he had been. It felt almost as weird, in a bizarro way, as last postseason’s Verlander narrative. Meanwhile, in his last four starts of the season, with the Tigers trying to catch the White Sox, he went 4-0 with an 0.64 ERA, struck out 27, walked six and gave up one home run. And now, in the playoffs, he has thrown 15 consecutive scoreless innings after giving up a leadoff homer. That, friends, is superhuman.