Don’t discount Verlander when it’s money time

Late Wednesday afternoon, in the top of the eighth inning, on his 109th pitch of the day, Justin Verlander blew a 94-m.p.h. fastball past White Sox cleanup hitter Conor Gillaspie. Strike 3! Verlander pounded the air with his fist. He hollered. His chest was heaving as he left the infield and headed for the dugout shadows, the thump of his closing book echoing through the ballpark.

“It hasn’t been an easy year,” he would say, alone by his locker, after the Tigers’ 6-1 victory. “It was a nice feeling to be able to step up when your team needs you…. That’s why the emotion came out.”

Justin Verlander is done for the season. The regular season, that is. His next appearance, should there be one, will be in a tiebreaker Monday, or a wild-card game Tuesday, or a first-round playoff series some time in the next week or so.

He finishes 15-12, with an ERA of 4.54, with the most earned runs allowed in the American League, and near the top for most hits allowed. Those last two are not proud benchmarks. This season, it is not a question of whether Verlander, at 31, is the top pitcher on the staff, but how far he has slipped.

Yet I have watched him his entire career, and I wouldn’t bet against him. I’ve seen this guy rear back too many times and find magic.

As he said after the game, “I’m stubborn in a good way.” And if he’s not exactly the same pitcher as two years ago, well, different doesn’t have to be bad.

When the heat is on …

“I realized,” he said, pulling on his shoes, “with a couple months left to go in the season, I’m not gonna turn these numbers around. I’m not gonna throw 70 straight scoreless innings and have a 3.00 ERA. It’s not realistic. So, yeah, you wanna step up when the team needs you in the biggest spot. The last few games I’ve been able to do that.”

It may not be about Verlander versus the MVP or Cy Young pitcher he used to be; it may be that we need a new set of criteria to judge his excellence. Gone are the days of flipping “K” cards or shocking the radar gun with 100-m.p.h. pitches in the late innings.

But last I looked, winning is still what counted in this sport. And perhaps Verlander is recasting himself as a money pitcher. His record was average last year, too, but his ERA in the postseason (0.39) was more than three runs lower than his regular-season number. And his playoff moments against Oakland have had the Athletics seeing ghosts long after he’d left the mound.

“I do believe he’s one of those pitchers,” manager Brad Ausmus said Wednesday, “who the brighter the light, the better he is.”

Consider what he has done the past two games, when the Tigers have been watching the standings every minute: 151/3 innings, two runs allowed, 10 strikeouts, no walks.

And two victories.

Every team in baseball will take that. Radar gun be damned.

No, he’s not leaving guys holding their bat in their hands, looking like kids who just watched an airplane speed past. Yes, he draws more foul balls, and guys who may not be able to take him deep, can stay alive on his heat. But you watch him on a day like Wednesday at Comerica Park, pitching opposite maybe the best left-hander in the league, Chris Sale, and what does he do? Outpitches Sale, who is six years younger. Strikes out the cleanup hitter, Gillaspie, who is four years younger. Gets guys to pop up all over the place. And keeps his pitch count down, so he can finish the eighth inning and save fans the fingernail-biting of the bullpen.

What more do you want?

Wait till next year …

Of course, Verlander is a dogged competitor, and nobody is going to tell him he’s slowing down.

“I’m not giving into the fact that I’m gonna be a low-90s fastball pitcher,” he said. “A lot of things went into this year… having talked to the doctors after my (core muscle) surgery, I’m excited to get back in the weight room – hit it hard, see a physical therapist, get my body working right again….

“I’m not 36. I’m in my young 30s.”

So you think you can return to throwing 98 and 99 m.p.h.?

“I do. I do. I mean, I believe that. I’m not gonna have anybody tell me otherwise until my career’s over, you know?”

And it’s a long way from over. The guy is still a stud. Meanwhile, during his two-year hiatus from being a rocketship, Verlander has learned to place his fastball, to craft his other pitches, and to be patient – as he was on the final hitter he faced Wednesday, going from a quick 0-2 to 3-2 with five foul balls.

He still struck him out. Stubborn in a good way. Justin Verlander is done for the regular season. But he might just be getting started.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com.

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