ST. PETERSBURG — “Give me the ball.”
Those are the four words that define October, that separate legends from the forgettable, that make a manager, in the sweat-causing, heart-racing, stomach-turning pressure cooker known as postseason baseball, sleep at night with a smile.
Were you to craft a coat of arms for postseason baseball you would do well to put “Da Mihi Pila” on a ribbon underneath crossed bats and baseballs, as well as a big red heart.
“Give me the ball.”
With the equivalent of those words, if not those exactly, but definitely not in Latin, Justin Verlander just turned the American League Division Series between his Astros and Rays into high theatre. Houston starter Zack Greinke was not quite done with flushing away Game 3 at Tropicana Field Monday with just 61 pitches when Verlander approached his manager, A.J. Hinch, in the dugout.
“Give me the ball” was his message. It is more accurate to say Verlander decided he was starting Game 4 than did the manager. What was Hinch supposed to do? Say, “No, thank you”?
“He's one of the best pitchers in the world,” Hinch said. “No more complicated than that. He's ready, and it's his game.”
Hinch had chatted with Verlander the previous day only about the possibility of Verlander taking the ball in Game 4 on short rest. Nothing was decided, but Hinch at least needed to broach the idea with his ace. Verlander has started 405 games in his career, including the regular season. But he never has made a start on short rest following a normal start.
He has pitched twice on short rest, but both occasions need to be qualified. Once, frenetically, he did so as a reliever in 2017 ALDS Game 4 in Boston. Once he started on two days of rest in 2011 ALDS Game 3 against the Yankees—but that needs an asterisk because Verlander was coming off a 25-pitch, one-inning start cut short by rain.
This would be a good time to remind you that in Game 4 Verlander will be 36 years and 230 days old. Nobody that old has won a postseason start on short rest in a decade, since Andy Pettitte in 2009 World Series Game 6. Pettitte is one of only five pitchers that old to do so in a clincher, joining Jamie Moyer (2001 ALDS), Rick Reuschel (1989 NLCS), Steve Carlton (1983 NLCS) and Eddie Plank (1913 World Series).
Here is why Hinch’s decision … er, Verlander’s decision … makes sense:
1. There’s no way when the greatest pitcher in the game says he wants the ball you tell him no. Oh, and by the way, he has allowed the Rays one run in 19 1/3 innings this year.
2. Up two games to one, Houston needs to win one of the next two games to advance to the ALCS. Your choices to start Games 4 and 5 are A) Verlander and Cole, or B) rookie Jose Urquidy and either Verlander or Cole. Give me option A all day.
3. Some might argue that a loss with Urquidy in Game 4 still leaves you with fully rested Verlander and Cole to cover Game 5 at home. That’s a dangerous all-eggs-in-one basket bet. And really, how tricky would it be for Hinch to manage that game, considering the use of one of his aces in relief would mean pulling another ace from the game.
4. The Rays seized all of the momentum in the series by blasting Greinke, 10-3, in Game 3. Suddenly everybody in their lineup is confident at the plate and home field at the Trop actually means something. To ask the rookie Urquidy to stop the momentum is a big ask, and if it didn’t happen, the rolling Rays become even more dangerous in a winner-take-all Game 5.
5. Verlander is a preparation freak. Few pitchers on the Houston staff dive as deeply into pre-start homework as does Verlander. He also is very routine-oriented. You might have thought of starting Urquidy and using Verlander as emergency backup, but that’s just not how the man rolls. This way he is allowed to go into full 24-hour prep mode for his start.
6. Verlander struggled initially with coming out of the bullpen in that ALDS game in Boston. Hinch told him he didn’t want to bring him into the game with runners on, but he did, summoning him with a man on first in the fifth with a one-run lead. Verlander at first seemed rushed and out of sorts. The first batter he faced, Andrew Benintendi, put Boston ahead with a two-run homer.
So … if Verlander says he is good to go to start a potential clincher, you don’t put him in the bullpen, you don’t hold him for another day … you start “one of the best pitchers in the world.”
All of this drama is necessary because Greinke threw an absolute clunker. Working on 11 days of rest, Greinke had no touch on his secondary pitches. Sure, Greinke looked good cruising through a nine-pitch first inning, but that’s because six of those nine pitches were fastballs. Once he started flipping in changeups and curveballs, Tampa Bay pounced. How bad was he?
Greinke gave up two homers on 19 changeups. He gave up three homers all year on 682 changeups.
Greinke hit one righthanded batter all year with a fastball. He hit Travis d’Arnaud with one with two outs in the second. Kevin Kiermaier followed with a three-run homer off a hanging changeup.
Grienke hung a first-pitch famously slow curveball to Brandon Lowe, who smashed it for an opposite-field homer. The pitch has great deception, but mostly when it prospers from the camouflage of a previous pitch. Embedded in an-bat, the Greinke curveball holds hitters to a .103 batting average. When he throws it first pitch, batters hit .364 with three homers in 22 at-bats.
The most damaging pitches by Greinke all were elevated: first-pitch changeup to Avisail Garcia in the second, the fastball that hit D’Arnaud, the home run by Kiermaier, a changeup that Ji-Man Choi crushed for a homer and the curveball to Lowe.
“He didn't execute particular pitches,” Hinch said. “Then when he didn't, they did incredible damage.”
Said pitching coach Brent Strom, “It was execution but it was also selection. I think we’re going to have to mix it up a little more.”
After the first inning Greinke threw just 16 fastballs in 52 pitches (31%)—and rarely inside, making it too easy for Tampa Bay to look out over the plate for his buffet of soft stuff. Greinke has made 12 postseason starts. He is 3-5 with a 4.58 ERA in those games, giving credence to the notion that pitchers without swing-and-miss stuff are in trouble in the postseason environment of intense at-bats. Without velocity or elite spin, the margin of error shrinks. And Greinke misfired badly in Game 3.
No such worries will be on display in Game 4 for Houston. Verlander has become the best appointment viewing pitcher in baseball, the successor to guys in October such as Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson and Madison Bumgarner. All of them earned their Da Mihi Pila crest.
Gibson won Game 7 of the 1964 World Series with a complete game on two days of rest. Johnson won Game 7 of the 2001 World Series with no days of rest out of the bullpen. Bumgarner, on two days of rest, recorded the longest clinching save in postseason history with the final five innings of 2014 World Series Game 7.
Houston is not down to its last game. ALDS Game 4 is not Game 7 of the World Series. What’s important here is that Verlander, at age 36, and 230 innings and 3,548 pitches into his 15th major league season, stepped up while Houston was losing Game 3 and said, “Give me the ball.”