The pitching matchup of Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish made Thursday night's contest between the Tigers and Rangers in Arlington one of the most anticipated games of the year, but it didn't take long for the bubble to burst.
It was evident in the first inning that Verlander wasn't sharp. The first five fastballs the 2011 AL MVP threw resulted in a strike, two balls and two singles. The first three batters he faced -- Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Lance Berkman -- delivered that pair of singles and an RBI grounder. Still, it was Darvish who got into the game's first jam.
Starting in center field in place of the injured Austin Jackson, Don Kelly led off the top of the third with a solo home run, after which the Tigers added another run on singles by Omar Infante and Andy Dirks, a great baserunning play by Infante, who went to third on a wild pitch that didn't get more than a couple feet away from Rangers catcher Geovany Soto, and a sac fly by Torii Hunter. Miguel Cabrera then doubled, pushing Dirks to third and prompting Rangers manager Ron Washington to have Darvish intentionally walk Prince Fielder to load the bases with one out. The Tigers got a third run on a sac fly by Victor Martinez on the 10th pitch of his at-bat, but Darvish then got Alex Avila to fly out, limiting the damage and validating Washington's gambit.
That, however, was nothing compared to Verlander's implosion in the bottom of the inning.
Starting with eighth-place hitter David Murphy, Verlander's inning went like this: single, single, stolen base, hit batsman, walk to force in a run, strikeout, walk to force in another run, strikeout, two-RBI double, three-run homer. Just when it seemed Verlander might escape with the tie and his dignity intact, Mitch Moreland and Geovany Soto delivered the knockout blows with that double and home run, sending Verlander to the showers before the end of the third inning for the first time since June 22, 2010.
The eight runs Verlander allowed, all of which were earned, tied his career high, and his 2 2/3 innings tied the third-shortest outing of his career. By game score, Verlander's performance on Thursday night tied the worst of his career by translating to a game score of just 15 (by comparison, Verlander's average game sore this season prior to Thursday night was 62).
Verlander's last 15 game score performance game on April 6, 2009 when he allowed eight runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays. Prior to that he earned a game score of 15 on September 1, 2008, the shortest outing of his career in which he allowed eight runs, five earned, to the Yankees in a mere inning and two thirds, and his other outing of 2 2/3 innings which game on April 13, 2006 and saw him allow seven runs to the White Sox.
For what it's worth, if the Arlington radar gun is accurate, Verlander also threw his fastest pitch of the season in that third inning, a 99 miles-per-hour 0-2 fastball to Nelson Cruz, which Cruz fouled off before striking out swinging through a slider three pitches later. So as ugly as Verlander's outing was, it isn't cause for further concern related to his reduced velocity in the first two months of this season.
For his part, Darvish allowed a solo home run to Jhonny Peralta to start the top of the fourth, but then settled down to finally deliver the kind of pitching performance this game promised, retiring 15 of the last 16 men he faced to complete eight innings with just those first four runs allowed. However, in doing so, Darvish also threw 130 pitches, a major league career high, becoming just the second pitcher this season to crack the 130-mark (Clayton Kershaw threw 132 on Tuesday), a workload which seemed unnecessary given the Rangers' 10-4 lead (the eventual final score) by the eighth inning.
Still, even that performance felt like a disappointment given the promise this game held. We expected a gem. Instead we got a game best summarized by this first-inning slide by Ian Kinsler.