Taking the bump in Toronto on Thursday for the first time since his second career no-hitter, in May 2011, Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander was dealing. Dealing from the mound, certainly, but also dealing with expectations that might handicap even the game’s best.
To be sure, Verlander himself bred those expectations, spoiling us all with greatness that, until this season, bordered on routine. The expectation that he must be something close to perfect on the mound, the best right-hander of his generation, the difference-maker who, but for a few ill-timed downpours in the 2011 American League Championship Series, might have pitched the Detroit Tigers into the first of two World Series in the franchise’s greatest run since the Great Depression. Max Scherzer might deserve to be the hero of the moment, but if anyone is going to be the guarantor that it might mean something, it’s supposed to be Justin Verlander.
That said, Verlander had his bad patches this season. After a bad Opening Day spin, Verlander notched a half-dozen quality starts. Then three rough gigs -- 17 runs allowed in less than 13 innings pitched -- and three more good turns, then two more bad starts, and now, after blowing away the Blue Jays in seven scoreless frames as Detroit scored an 11-1 victory, his latest back-to-back flashes of the Verlander of old.
In today’s quick-spin news cycle, it’s easy to see how some might jump to consigning him to the same pit of disappointment that Tim Lincecum has been in for a year and a half. That’s what consistent success breeds -- an expectation conditioned by consistent excellence, that Justin Verlander doesn’t do this to “us,” whether “us” means that you’re a Tigers fan or just a fantasy owner asking what have you done for me lately, and all points in between.
But Verlander is better than that, and if anything, his struggles are a reminder of how narrow the gap is between excellence and failure, even when talking about the top tier of talent. As if Roy Halladay’s meltdown earlier this season wasn’t example enough, Verlander’s lurches between dominance and desperation this year are a reminder of the need for constant vigilance and constant adjustment, whether that’s a matter of injury or adaptation to a league that has seen you time and again, and demands new tricks before submitting to your skill.
It’s a reflection of the benefits of the present that the Tigers ace can discern a problem with his mechanics, and act on the findings. It’s also a reflection of the fragile balance between burden and benefit as far as his greatness, that he can go from adequate to awesome with the slightest adjustment.
That’s well reflected in the divergence between good and bad Verlander this year. In his 12 quality starts, not one has been a cheapo six-inning, three-run gig; his past five non-quality spins involve at least two baserunners per inning, four runs or more, five innings or less. There’s no in between: Good, and Verlander is very good; bad, and he’s put you behind the eight ball, sticking you with a game that’s hard to win in today’s run-scarce environment.
There’s a lesson here, of how thin the line between greatness and adequacy is at the highest level. Results aren’t phoned in, they’re delivered, and even as blessed as Verlander has been, even he must submit to the game’s relentless rigor, to adjust, adapt -- or fail. As much greatness as Verlander has owned from the outset of his career, just like any of us he cannot take his gifts for granted.
Perhaps too easily, sports lends itself to stories and storytelling, but that’s because the stories we tell are about people, and because what we take from them is the benefit of the experience of others. If, on this Fourth of July, this birthday of something great and good, we have the benefit of seeing something great and good renewed on the mound, we might take from it a lesson.
Dangerous ground? Perhaps. Perhaps sports is meant to merely entertain and not to educate. But if perchance you’re one given to looking at a player’s performance, and prefer to dissent and discern among the differences between success and superiority, between the struggle to achieve greatness and the seeming effortlessness of those who have it, then watching Justin Verlander this season should be cause for admiration and not exasperation among us all. He who might be the greatest hurler in his generation, but he’s also mortal? And yet finding a way to reinvent the greatness he has inspired us with of old?
That, my friends, is magic. There is no greater gift that fandom can give, no better reward than witnessing another person achieve it, no better reminder that Justin Verlander is just a man on the mound with a job to do, and no better lesson than to take that example to inspire you to achieve your own best. If you, like me, think a birthday is a time for renewal and not regret, then join fans of every stripe in celebrating something beautiful, old, new and renewed: Justin Verlander, back like he oughta be, entertaining all, and you, and me.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.