Verlander wasn't bad this year. He just wasn't as good as he's accustomed to being. So this was an opportunity to demonstrate that he's all the way back, that those two strong starts at the end of the regular season really did mean that he's figured it all out.
And he did just that.
Verlander didn't give up his first hit until there were two outs in the fourth Saturday night at O.co Coliseum. He ended up pitching seven shutout innings, fanning 11 Athletics hitters. He walked one and scattered four singles. He was at the top of his game, and the only problem was that the Tigers didn't score, either. Oakland eventually won, 1-0, on a bases-loaded single by catcher Stephen Vogt in the bottom of the ninth to even the best-of-five series at a game apiece (Game 3, Monday, 1 p.m. ET, MLB Network).
"I don't want to lose sight of how good Verlander was," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "Sometimes people remember the winning team and how good that pitcher [Oakland's Sonny Gray] pitched. But Justin Verlander was just terrific."
Added Tigers catcher Alex Avila: "He was electric. I could just tell [in the bullpen] that he had his good curve going. He got in a nice groove with it as the game went on."
Verlander admitted that the regular season was a battle. Numbers that many starters would have framed and hung on the wall were below his normal standards. So there was that. And then there was the fact that Game 1 starter Max Scherzer had pitched so well, striking out 11 in seven innings. After that game, right fielder Torii Hunter predicted that it would only spur Verlander on to do even better.
And even though a superb outing didn't result in a win, it gave the pitcher, and everybody else associated with the Tigers, confidence that those two starts at the end of the season were no fluke, that if Detroit advances, Verlander will, again, be a force to be reckoned with.
"I've been working really hard to find my stuff and my location and everything," he said. "I feel like my last three in particular have been really good. My last three or four starts, with the adjustments I've made, the thing that's most glaring is how my curveball has responded. I tinkered around with my grip a little bit. I thought I had changed my grip over the course of the season. Things just kind of changed. The adjustments I made have allowed me not only to control it better, but for it to be sharper."
The most pivotal at-bat of the game for Verlander came in the seventh. He walked Brandon Moss to start the inning, and Yoenis Cespedes ripped a line drive to right that Hunter snagged with a running catch. With two outs, Josh Reddick singled to right and advanced on the throw to leave runners at second and third.
That brought Vogt to the plate for what turned out to be a 10-pitch at-bat. Verlander eventually struck him out swinging, pumping his first in jubilation.
"I don't usually get too animated out there," he said. "Obviously, I'm as competitive as they come. In the postseason, there's adrenaline and everything. I'm not trying to show anybody up. It just kind of comes out. That was a huge spot in the game, and that's one of the best at-bats anybody's had against me in a long time. So to come out on the winning side, the emotion just flows."
Verlander said he tried everything he had but Vogt kept fouling pitches off. At one point, Avila came to the mound. It looked like they were discussing strategy. That was deceiving.
"I put my glove over my mouth, but I didn't say a word," Avila said with a grin. "We got three-quarters of the way to the mound and then I just said, 'I've got nothing.'"
The at-bat also helped push Verlander's pitch count to 117, eliminating any chance he could come back out for the eighth.
A win would have sent the Tigers back to Detroit with a commanding lead in the ALDS. Instead, they're starting all over again. Except for one thing. Except for knowing that, if they do advance, there's a real good chance they'll have the Verlander that everybody's gotten accustomed to, not the guy who struggled to find himself much of this season. He proved as conclusively as possible that he's back.
And while that doesn't make up for not getting the victory Saturday night, it's not bad consolation, either.