by | Oct 5, 2009 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

He wanted to be the ace from the moment he arrived in Detroit. On Sunday afternoon, he got the hero’s nod from his skipper, like a fighter pilot being handed the last working plane. The season’s on the line, kid. Go ahead, kid, save it.

All Justin Verlander did was pitch seven goose-egg innings against Chicago, allowing a lonely single in the first, another in the sixth, a solitary walk in the third – and all the rest outs. Groundouts. Strikeouts. No ball even sniffed the stands. He threw zeroes into the eighth, by which point, finally, the Tigers’ bats, clenched to the point of uselessness the previous three games, had loosened up, and five runs had been stored like chestnuts.

Ace goes out. Season goes on.

“Shut ’em down,” Verlander said, when asked what his plan had been for Sunday’s regular-season finale, his 19th victory of the year. Shut ’em down. Someone had to. The Tigers had lost – 8-3, 8-0 and 5-1 – the previous three days, setting up a disaster of Biblical proportions. After leading the division since Mother’s Day, they could have lost it by a single game.

Verlander avoided that – for now. “When you got a horse like him …” manager Jim Leyland kept saying, shaking his head in his office.

Talk all you want about Ryan Raburn’s two home runs (crucial) and Magglio Ordoñez’s 4-for-4 afternoon (about time) and Curtis Granderson’s diving catch that closed a scary eighth inning (breathe, breathe). Big dots on the graph. But the baseline was Verlander. Yes, he got hit around in the eighth, but Detroit was playing from ahead. If someone else gives up a few early runs, the Tigers might be flying to winter vacations today, instead of flying to Minnesota for a one-game tiebreaker.

“My job was to give us a chance,” he said.

Ace goes out. Season goes on. Why we want the Yankees

Of course, all the Tigers won is a trip they shouldn’t have to take, to a place they do not want to go, for a game they should not have to play, for the right to be an underdog in the playoffs.

So why are they so happy? Because baseball in October is a day-by-day lottery ticket, if you have a game, you have a chance. Leyland knows that. He talked about it in his office, feet on the desk, one eye on the Twins-Royals game, which Minnesota would win, 13-4.

“No. 1, you got to get there,” Leyland said. “Do I think maybe we should have won it already? Yes. But I think back to the start of the year, people picking us fourth. …

“I’m one of those guys who believes anything can happen. … I respectfully want to play the Yankees in the first round. … Because if we don’t play the Yankees, we didn’t get in.”

Which means Tuesday’s showdown in the Metrodome (dear Lord, didn’t you think we were done in that place?) will be sandbags tossed over the side, shoes, hats, valuables, anything to keep the balloon afloat. First get there. The Yankees would seem to have all the advantages come the playoffs, including the right to call for Game 1 on Wednesday, barely giving the Tigers-Twins winner a chance to stop sweating.

But baseball isn’t football. It’s an everyday game, and you could argue that a team fighting daily for its survival could be sharper than a team that seemingly clinched the playoffs on the Fourth of July. Another kid’s big chance

One thing the Tigers know for sure – Verlander could not start a series. The soonest he could pitch would be a Game 2 on Friday night.

So what? In 2006 against the Yankees, the Tigers started Nate Robertson in Game 1, which they lost, Verlander in Game 2, which they won, and Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman in the Games 3 and 4 victories. Anything can happen. Hey, it can rain.

First, get there, which means Tuesday, at the indoor thunder palace, against a team that seemingly has forgotten how to lose. The Twins have scored 36 runs in their past four games. Against that juggernaut, the Tigers will offer up Rick Porcello, who this Christmas will still be too young (20) to legally drink spiked eggnog.

“He’s been young all year,” Leyland said, which is something Yogi Berra might say, and which is true. “I know one thing for a fact. He will not be scared.”

Good. For inspiration, he can look a few lockers over, to a tall Virginian who three years ago was in a similar rookie situation, and is largely responsible for Detroit having this chance at all.

Justin Verlander brought the plane back in one piece. Porcello gets to fly it Tuesday. You want to be an ace, you have to earn your wings. All yours, kid.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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