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Verlander cements elite status with postseason game for the ages


DETROIT -- Four thousand two hundred sixty-eight pitches deep into his season, Justin Verlander did something he hadn't done all year: he threw a pitch 102 mph. Adrian Beltre of Texas very nearly hit the fastest ball Verlander threw all year off the rightfield foul pole -- his fifth-inning shot swerved foul -- which had Verlander thinking, "Thank God it wasn't 101 or it would be a home run."

Said Verlander, "This is the first time all year I've hit 102. I feel pretty good."

This season is Verlander's personal property, a Triple Crown year with 24 wins, only the ninth time in the history of the five-man rotation anyone has won that many games. And what he did in ALCS Game 5 was to throw a game for the ages, a game that consolidated his status as one of the elite pitchers of his generation.

Greatness is left incomplete without such an October game. Sometimes, as with someone like Felix Hernandez, it is a matter of waiting for the opportunity itself. But all the greats in this wild card era do wind up with at least one signature postseason game: Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, etc.

Verlander had seven previous cracks at a game with real staying power. In his eighth postseason start, especially given the circumstances, he delivered. Verlander took the ball knowing that his team was facing elimination and knowing that his team's two best relievers, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde, were not available. Manager Jim Leyland announced to the world -- and most especially the Texas Rangers -- that he was not using Benoit and Valverde because they needed a day off.

What Verlander, who allowed eight hits and four runs with eight strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings, did was go all old school on Texas. It was a game Bob Gibson would have been proud of. It wasn't just that Verlander threw a ball faster than he had all year. It was that he did not leave the game until he had thrown 133 pitches. The last one, one out into the eighth inning, traveled 100 mph, and left the park courtesy of Nelson Cruz.

Verlander left with the win in what was a 7-5 Detroit victory. He also left with enormous respect. His 133 pitches were more than he ever had thrown in his career. That's more than anybody had thrown in a postseason game for eight years -- since Mark Prior threw 133 pitches in the 2003 NLDS, a streak of 540 straight starting pitchers who never lasted that long. No one has thrown more in a postseason game in 11 years.

Before the postseason began, Verlander told me he had no problem throwing "130, 140 pitches, whatever it takes. This is why I've worked as hard as I have all year: just for these games. I've prepared all year for this."

There is nobody like him in baseball. If you want to talk the best pitcher in baseball, you can argue for Halladay, Lincecum or Hernandez. But you can't argue that anybody does it like Verlander: triple-digits fastball, a hammer curveball that spins at more than 3,000 revolutions per minute -- astonishingly faster than the average curveball -- and a nasty 90-mph changeup you can ask Josh Hamilton all about. Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals is the only other starting pitcher even with a similar toolbox of pitches, but he's still serving an apprenticeship.

On a night when the Tigers could not afford to lose -- could not even afford to make it a bullpen game -- Verlander made sure it would not happen. The next time he takes the ball will be either in spring training if Texas wins another game or in the World Series if Detroit wins two more. He will not pitch out of the bullpen in Game 6 on Saturday or, if there is one, Game 7 on Sunday. He could start World Series Game 1 with an extra day of rest (five) or Game 2 if manager Jim Leyland thinks he need even more recovery from Game 5.

"He's going to rest now," Leyland said. "Obviously, if we don't move on, he's done. And even if we were fortunate to get to the World Series, we can make an adjustment if we need to give him an extra day."

Take a look at the highlights of the sixth inning home run by Delmon Young that pushed the Detroit lead to 6-2. Don't look at the ball. Look at the Texas bullpen. Nobody is throwing.

One win from the World Series, Texas manager Ron Washington took a chance by leaving a shaky C.J. Wilson in the game without any option of removing him. In doing so, Washington violated a cardinal rule of postseason managing: never let a postseason game get out of hand. There are too many pitchers and too many off days to leave a pitcher in a game too long to let it get out of reach.

The score was 2-2 when Wilson took the mound in the sixth. Starting with a single by Ryan Raburn, the game was lost in a 12-pitch sequence that was unlike anything ever seen before in postseason history: four batters hit for the cycle in order (single, double, triple, home run). Nobody was even throwing to keep the game closer -- not even with an off day Friday and not even though it was Leyland who had the depleted bullpen.

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Yes, the Rangers and Wilson got a bad break when a grounder by Cabrera kicked off the third base bag and --presto! -- a double play magically became a run-scoring double. But Washington has to manage to the circumstances and put a tourniquet on the game.

"He was throwing the ball well," Washington said of sticking with Wilson.

Obviously, the results showed otherwise. And Wilson has shown not to be a pitcher who has earned a long leash in the postseason. In seven career postseason starts, he is 1-4 with a 5.40 ERA. Only three times in Rangers postseason history has a pitcher been tagged for as many as six earned runs. Wilson is responsible for two of those bombs.

It's not often you get unsolicited wonder from a major league clubhouse about an opponent, but that's what happened after Game 5 when the Tigers contemplated the havoc they've witnessed from Nelson Cruz of the Rangers.

"Did you see Nelson Cruz?" closer Jose Valverde said. "Oh, man, that guy is strong."

"Cruz," said catcher Alex Avila, "is a man-child."

Cruz took a 100-mph 0-and-2 fastball from Verlander in the eighth inning and hit yet another towering, majestic home run. It was his fifth home run of the series, tying a record for any postseason shared by Reggie Jackson, Chase Utley, Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez. Cruz has hit 11 homers in 93 career postseason at-bats, including five in 18 at-bats in this ALCS. Cruz has swung at 37 pitches. He has put 14 balls into play -- five of them have left the park.

This ridiculous home run binge begs a question: Why is he still batting seventh? Washington could very easily move Cruz into the fourth or fifth slots in his lineup, currently occupied by Michael Young (.162 this postseason) and Beltre (hitless in his past 12 at-bats).

Washington said before Game 4 that a lineup switch would imply "panic." But when does the sense of riding a hot bat come into play?

Speaking of managers, how much fun has it been to watch good friends Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland wring every ounce out of these postseason games? It's been a postseason that has required even more strategy than usual because starting pitchers have not asserted themselves as normal.

La Russa, the Cardinals' manager, and Leyland have managed more than 8,000 games between the two of them, ranking second and 15th all-time. So they have a little bit of a clue about how to run a game. More to the point, they are not afraid to make bold moves.

Here are the number of pitchers in each game that LaRussa has used this postseason: 5, 7, 3, 6, 1, 6, 7, 5, 5. That's 45 pitchers in nine games.

Leyland has been bold enough to twice take his best pitchers out of play when facing elimination. He said Verlander would not be used out of the bullpen in ALDS Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, and he said Benoit and Valverde would be rested no matter what in ALCS Game 5. In each case his team won the game.

"You just have to be ready for the criticism and the second-guessing part of that," Leyland said. "You have to be ready for that and know you're going to get it. I understand that totally. I don't have any problem with that."

Milwaukee leftfielder Ryan Braun has played 13 postseason games in his career. Only once has the opposing team kept him off base. His at-bat in the fifth inning of NLCS Game 4 -- the biggest one of the series so far -- typified why Braun is one of the best hitters in the game. The game was tied at 2 when Milwaukee had a runner on third base with one out. The Cardinals needed a strikeout, a pop-up or a grounder to one of the corners. Good luck with that. Braun hit only nine infield pop-ups all year in 629 plate appearances. He drove in the runner from third with less than two outs 70 percent of the time during the season.

Braun reproved he is a dangerous situational hitter by taking a two-strike pitch and driving it through the infield for the tie-breaking run. Braun is likely to win the NL MVP Award this season, and he's also elevating his status with an historic start to his postseason career. The guy is a tough out all the time, but especially in October. Check out the October version of the .400 Club, the best postseason hitters among all players who ever came to the plate at least 50 times in their postseason careers: