The great baseball writer and poet Roger Angell once described a Nolan Ryan fastball as a liquid streak of white. The great baseball slugger and braggadocio Reggie Jackson once said about facing Ryan, “He’s the only guy I go against that makes me go to bed before midnight.”
That has to be how opposing hitters have felt about Justin Verlander this season. Even if they do go to bed early the night before facing him, they must be thinking about liquid streaks of white or curveballs dropping from heaven or unhittable changeups or sliders that make you flail like a snowflake in a windstorm.
One of the things I love about a baseball season is how it develops story arcs and how certain years become identified with certain players -- if you’re a baseball nerd like I am you know what I mean: 1968 is Bob Gibson, 1980 is George Brett, 1988 is Jose Canseco (until the World Series, when it became Orel Hershiser), and 1998, of course, is Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Not every season has such a guy. Who won the MVP awards in 2007? Jimmy Rollins and Alex Rodriguez. That’s information that doesn’t exactly spring to mind, does it? The Cy Young winners? Jake Peavy and CC Sabathia. Good seasons, but not legendary.
I could be wrong here, but 2011 is shaping up as the year of Justin Verlander. This is a feel thing as much as a statistical thing. He pitched the no-hitter, took two other no-hitters into the eighth, is tall and dynamic on the mound, and has kind of been a one-man rotation for the Tigers. His fastball, it goes without saying, kind of gets the job done, and America loves the fastball as much as it loves Cool Whip.
Thursday night’s game against Cleveland wasn’t what I’d call a huge game for Detroit, but avoiding the series sweep certainly was at least a big game. The last thing the Tigers need is to let the Indians hang around. You let a team hang until late September, and next thing you know, you’re losing a one-game tiebreaker.
It wasn’t Verlander’s best game of the season. He nearly squandered a 4-0 lead, giving up a home run to Carlos Santana in the second inning and then a two-run double to Asdrubal Cabrera in the third after he had issued two walks. It was Verlander’s first three-walk start since May 13. But he settled down, overpowered the Indians after that and allowed just two more baserunners after Cabrera’s double, until he was lifted after seven innings and 108 pitches (tied for his third-lowest pitch count of the season). Jose Valverde closed it out once again -- he has lost three games but is 33-for-33 in save opportunities -- and Detroit’s lead is back up to three games. Amazingly, it snapped a 13-game losing streak for the Tigers in Cleveland.
Verlander improved to 17-5 for those of who you still like win-loss records, giving him 100 career victories. ESPN colleague Jayson Stark tweeted that it’s Verlander’s fifth 17-win season by age 28, and the only other pitchers to do so in the past 30 years were Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 196 to 41, and opponents are hitting .185 against him.
Yes, it certainly feels like Justin Verlander’s season.
There’s only one hitch to all that: He’s not even a lock for the Cy Young Award right now. The Angels’ Jered Weaver is 14-5 with a 1.78 ERA. Weaver has pitched two games in which he went nine innings without a run and didn’t get the victory. In 24 starts, he’s allowed just 36 runs. Verlander has allowed 57 runs in 26 starts. Weaver has yet to allow more than four runs in a game, where Verlander has done it twice; Verlander has five games with four or more runs allowed to Weaver’s two. Since the American League went to the DH rule in 1973, only three starters have finished with an ERA less than 2.00: Ron Guidry in 1978, Roger Clemens in 1990 and Pedro Martinez in 2000.
So, yes, Jered Weaver has dominated as well.
We have time to sort out the Cy Young race. Both pitchers have plenty of big starts remaining as their teams battle for the playoffs. Maybe it will sort itself out by the end of the season.
But maybe it won’t. So I guess my question is: Do hitters go to bed before midnight when Weaver is pitching the next day?
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Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.