DETROIT -- If you could have this version of Justin Verlander for one postseason run, what would it be worth to you? The Detroit Tigers ace did his best to add a couple of layers of complexity to that hypothetical question Sunday.
Baseball's unstoppable force -- the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers -- ran smack into peak-form Verlander, who brick-walled their six-game winning streak. It's no sweat for the Dodgers, who remain 52 games over .500, but that kind of dominance ought to pique the interest of general managers from other prime contenders. I'm primarily referring to the Houston Astros, of course, but we'll get back to that.
Verlander took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, the third time he has done that this season. His bid was broken up when old friend and former teammate Curtis Granderson took a borderline two-strike, 98 mph fastball, then hit Verlander's next offering off the right-field foul pole. But Verlander rolled through eight innings, giving up only the one run and two hits and striking out nine as the Tigers avoided a sweep with a 6-1 win.
"He did an amazing job of hitting all the pitching zones," Granderson said. "Top of the zone. Bottom of the zone. Inside, outside. Not too many balls in the middle of the plate."
Some nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information:
Verlander said his fastball had "extra life," and it showed in the numbers. L.A.'s 28 percent miss rate on his fastball was Verlander's best mark since May 14.
Verlander threw first-pitch strikes 78 percent of the time Sunday, his best figure since Aug. 26, 2016.
When Verlander did fall behind, it didn't hurt him. For the second time this season, he didn't give up a hit after starting a plate appearance with a ball.
Verlander not only beat L.A., he did so when the Dodgers' starter, Kenta Maeda, was matching zeros, throwing five perfect frames before Detroit broke through with four runs in the sixth.
"The way it was going through the first five innings, the margin for error is so slim," Verlander said. "You get in more of a rhythm because you're out there so quickly. That's why playoff games are so draining. You have to remind yourself that every single pitch can be the difference between a win and loss. That's kind of how if felt today."
Ding, ding, ding: Verlander in postseason mode! That aside, what was of particular interest in Verlander's repertoire was that he broke out a new pitch for the first time all season, a second slider that had a little bit of cutting action. While Verlander acknowledged it was a new pitch and he hadn't used it, he seemed exceedingly hesitant to discuss the matter.
"First time," was as much as Verlander was willing to say on the matter, though he did so with a sheepish grin on his face.
But it wasn't just Verlander's pitching line or how impressively he executed his pitches. It's that he did it against the Dodgers.
This is where the Astros-themed quandary comes into play. Verlander trade rumors have been floating about for months and, frankly, none of them have seemed particularly plausible. He's still an above-average pitcher, but his ERA this season remains near 4.00 and his fielding-independent metrics confirm that's an appropriate measure of his production. He's on the books for $28 million in both 2018 and 2019, before coming up on an option year in 2020, and he has a no-trade clause that allows him to control his destiny.
Unless the Tigers are willing to swallow a huge chunk of money, the marginal upgrade Verlander's macro-level numbers suggest just doesn't seem worth it. However, if Verlander gets on a roll, there really isn't anyone who can beat him, as is the case with only a few pitchers in the game.
"If Justin Verlander is pitching well, it doesn't matter who is on the other side," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "You put the '27 Yankees out there and he's going to pitch well. The numbers are going to look good for him at the end of the game if he pitches like he did today."
Among Verlander's postgame comments, what caught my attention was his description of the approach he had for the game.
"I went out there against the best team in baseball, and this morning I just kind of told myself I was going to take a playoff type of intensity out there and not let these guys sweep us," Verlander said.
"It's impossible to really create a playoff atmosphere without being in the playoffs, but I tried my best to do that and use that much more focus and intensity on every pitch."
It's almost as if he took out a full-page ad in a Houston paper saying, "This is Justin Verlander dialed up to postseason intensity."
Verlander's game score Sunday (82) was his second of the season over 80. He has had 25 such games in his career and seven since the start of the 2015 season. The latter figure is tied for the seventh most among all starters during that span. Here's the thing about an 80 game score: You don't lose. There have been 366 such performances since 2015, and in those games, starters have gone 318-2 with 46 no-decisions.
Yet, can you gamble that much money on the possibility of a Dodgers-stopping (or Red Sox- or Indians-stopping) kind of outing, one that on average occurs about one every 11 starts for Verlander?
"He's a competitor," Granderson said. "Probably the most competitive teammate I ever had. If I was right-handed pitcher coming up out of high school or college, he would be a guy I would emulate, from his work ethic to the way he studies and learns."
Not long ago, I made the argument that the healthy version of an Astros roster is good enough as constructed. Houston keeps coming up in the conversation, though GM Jeff Luhnow told reporters he doesn't expect to make a splashy addition. My stance remains that he's right to take that stance.
But what if you could get the Sunday version of Verlander and all it would cost is money? Lots and lots of money?
That's the question Luhnow and other contending GMs have to deal with between now and the end of the month. Because it looks as if Verlander is intent on making his case to get back to the postseason.