ARLINGTON, Texas -- Every year in the NCAA baseball playoffs, college coaches throughout America push young pitchers beyond their physical limits and individual comfort zones. So it was interesting to watch Thursday night as Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland resisted the temptation to use Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in the majors, for a bullpen cameo in the deciding Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees.
The Tigers have an $80 million investment in Verlander through 2014, but Leyland's decision went beyond protecting the franchise's long-term economic interests. He took a personal stake in safeguarding Verlander's health, regardless of the short-term consequences.
Leyland clearly didn't feel comfortable using Verlander three days after the Detroit ace had thrown 120 pitches and dug deep to throw five straight 100 mph fastballs to Alex Rodriguez in the eighth inning. With the hard-throwing Max Scherzer rested and ready to pitch out of the bullpen, Leyland considered it a "no-brainer'' and a "common-sense decision'' to keep Verlander on ice, even if he set himself up for some second-guessing.
"I don't jeopardize any pitcher or player's health under any circumstances,'' Leyland said Friday. "It's not going to happen. You can take it to the bank. He volunteered to pitch. But that's why you're the manager. You make those decisions, and sometimes they are popular decisions and sometimes they're unpopular decisions. But you try to make the right decision.''
Leyland's well-intentioned decision to protect Verlander's health resulted in the best of all possible scenarios for Detroit. If the Texas Rangers plan to make it to the World Series for a second straight year, they're going to have to go through Detroit's best. Verlander will pitch Saturday's American League Championship Series opener against C.J. Wilson at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, and will be on the mound again in Game 5 at Detroit.
The Rangers ranked third in the majors with 855 runs scored this regular season and were second to the Yankees with 210 homers, so they have ample reason to believe they can hit any pitcher, regardless of velocity or Cy Young Award-MVP buzz. But they still understand how big a challenge Verlander presents.
The Rangers have seen Verlander nine times over the past few seasons (he's 6-2 with a 2.31 ERA against them) and they've read plenty about him. And Lord knows, his name comes up an awful lot in conversation these days. When the Rangers appeared at an ALCS media event Friday, reporters sure weren't asking them about the travails of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. It was wall-to-wall Verlander talk.
"He's very good,'' said Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler. "He's one of the best in the game -- if not the best. We all know that. Is he human? Yes. Is he beatable? Yes. There are ways to score and things you can take advantage of in a game. It's going to be tough, but we feel like we can beat anyone.''
He's very good. He's one of the best in the game -- if not the best. We all know that.
”-- Ian Kinsler, on Justin Verlander
Verlander faced the Rangers once this season, on April 11 in Detroit, and threw a complete game in a 2-0 loss to Alexi Ogando and relievers Darren Oliver and Neftali Feliz. A few weeks later he threw his second career no-hitter in a 9-0 victory over Toronto, and he was on his way to an incredible season.
Verlander finished 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and a major league-leading 250 strikeouts, and now he has a chance to join Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Roger Clemens, Denny McLain, Don Newcombe and Vida Blue as the seventh starter to snag a Cy Young-MVP double. Rollie Fingers, Willie Hernandez and Denny Eckersley achieved the feat as closers.
Verlander's stamina is almost as impressive as his stats and his stuff. This year he threw a major league-leading 3,941 pitches during the regular season, while the Angels' Dan Haren ranked second with 3,774. Verlander's natural gifts are obvious, and he credits his endurance to a rigorous winter workout regimen that gives him the freedom to focus on shoulder exercises and light leg work from April through September. Verlander doesn't even lift weights during the season because he has said he thinks throwing is sufficient to keep his upper body in shape.
Still, there's something freakish about his ability to maintain or even ratchet up his velocity deep into games. Verlander freely admits that he checks out the gun readings on the scoreboard after every pitch to keep tabs on his stuff during games. Since he's blessed with the ability to hit triple digits, he can dial back and throw at 90 percent and still have enough oomph to overpower hitters. That gives him a distinct advantage over most pitchers. Factor in his unhittable curve and plus changeup, and it's the repertoire from hell.
"You'll see him get people on base and he'll throw 100,'' teammate Brad Penny said. "Then nobody is on base and he'll throw 92, 93 or 94. He's saving his bullets for when he really needs them. Justin reminds me of Bartolo Colon [when he was at his peak]. He's smart. He uses it when he needs it.''
Verlander entered this season with a 7-11 career record and a 5.05 ERA in April, and he came to spring training in Lakeland, Fla., and vowed to get off to a better start. "He told me, 'I'm not having a bad April this year,''' Penny said. "His first outing he was throwing 96 or 97, and everybody else was just trying to build up. I told myself, 'He's ready.'' Verlander's 2-3, 3.64 April wasn't great compared to the rest of his season, but it set the stage for things to come.
And now the Tigers are four wins away from a pennant, and Verlander is rested and ready to go. Detroit will start Verlander in Game 1, followed by Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. That starting pitching contingent is probably the biggest obstacle to Texas reaching the World Series for a second straight season.
In the end, the manager knew best, as usual. Verlander lobbied to pitch in relief Thursday, but Leyland resisted. The Tigers beat the Yankees to advance, and they'll get the very best that Verlander has to offer in the series opener.
"Him and I always seem to differ one way or another,'' Verlander said of Leyland. "He says 'po-tay-to,' and I say 'po-tah-to.' After the game the other night, I can't quite remember, it was in the middle of the celebration. He came up to me and said something along the lines of, 'You never trust your skipper, do you?'
"It worked out all right, didn't it?''
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.