Sunday, March 30, 2008

You Heard It Here First: Verlander Hall Of Fame-Bound

This is how old Tigers ace Justin Verlander is: 25. This is what he’s done so far: won Rookie of the Year; pitched in a World Series; made an All-Star team; thrown a no-hitter.

Jim Bunning didn’t do all that. Mickey Lolich didn’t do all that. Denny McLain didn’t do all that. Jack Morris didn’t do all that (though he came close).

Want me to go back further?

George Mullin didn’t do all that. Hooks Dauss didn’t do all that. Tommy Bridges didn’t do all that. “Prince” Hal Newhouser didn’t do all that.

Justin Verlander is all that, and he’s 25.

Say hello to your next Tigers homegrown Hall of Famer.

Roll your eyes all you want. Mock my boosterism as nothing more than over-exuberant, hometown bias. Here, I’ll call the men in the white jackets myself, to save you the trouble. Guffaw from now until nightfall, for all I care.

Verlander, I’m telling you, will find himself enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y. when all is said and done.

Don’t tell me about injuries and bad luck and flashes in the pan. Put a sock in it if you’re going to warn me of arms busting at the seams or flames burning out. I don’t want to have this conversation with you if you mean to dissuade me with sensible, even-handed talk. My mind’s made up. My decision is as final as an umpire’s, no matter how wrong he may be.

But I’m not wrong here, not on this one. Video replay will exonerate me, some 15 years from now, or more.

Not to mention how heartily I’ll be laughing at you as we watch Verlander step up to the podium in Cooperstown one August day, perhaps two decades from now, as he unfurls a speech from his breast pocket and starts in on the thanks and the memories.

I’ve already got one of your arguments countered.

Sophomore jinx? HA! Here’s what Verlander did in his rookie year of 2006: 17-9, 3.63 ERA, 186 IP, 124 strikeouts. And here’s what he did in 2007: 18-6, 3.66 ERA, 202 IP, 183 strikeouts. He gave up 187 hits in 2006, a little more than one per inning. Last year, Verlander surrendered but 181 hits, about 0.9 per inning.

The kid got better in his sophomore year.


Oh, and there was that no-hitter last June, against Milwaukee.

Hold your horses. I’m not using a no-hitter, by itself, to support my claim. Lots of mediocre, even bad, pitchers have rendered teams hitless. It’s one of the beauties of baseball, as far as I’m concerned – that the nondescript can rise up for one day and get all Cy Young-ish on us.

It’s how Verlander tossed his no-no that impressed me. No Tigers pitcher had thrown a no-hitter, at home, since Virgil Trucks did it in 1952. Not Bunning. Not Lolich. Not McLain. Not Morris. Others have done it to the Tigers in Detroit, though. Nolan Ryan and Steve Busby both got the Tigers at Tiger Stadium in 1973. Morris’s no-hitter, in Chicago in 1984, was no work of art. And Jack would be the first to agree with me on that. He walked six and threw a lot of pitches. I’ve seen him pitch many games more brilliantly that weren’t close to no-hitters, but they were classics because of his guts, his determination, and because of the situation.

Verlander showed me a lot of those things when he handcuffed the Brewers last June.

He was rarely in trouble. Yeah, he got a couple good defensive plays, but every pitcher gets those. He worked quickly, as is his trademark, not letting the enormity of the moment alter his approach. He went right after the Brewers, in complete control.

But it wasn’t just that he threw a no-hitter. Verlander is displaying now the kind of brazen, fearless competitive spirit that the great ones who’ve stood on a pitchers mound have shown throughout baseball history. He’s morphing into a blend of Morris, McLain, and Lolich – the three most recent Tigers pitching greats: Morris’s ferocity, McLain’s cockiness, and Lolich’s reliability.

As the Tigers stumbled their way through the 2006 World Series, I remember turning to one of my colleagues and gushing that, no matter the result, the exciting part was the experience the younger players were getting by having taken part in a championship series so early in their careers. Their baptism by fire would sure to pay off later, I reasoned. Verlander was one of the players I especially had in mind when I waxed philosophical about a dream season ending in a nightmare.

Verlander has a relatively easy, smooth pitching motion that doesn’t appear to be extra taxing on his powerful right arm. He’s a rhythm pitcher, and opposing batters try to disrupt him by stepping out of the batter’s box. Let ‘em try. He just stands there, on the mound, eyes boring into the hitter, calmly waiting for him to once again be ready.

There’s a certain nastiness that needs to show itself on the mound. It doesn’t have to extend any further than that, though some of the greats have been known to be grumpy bears on the day they pitched, from the moment they rolled out of bed. Bob Gibson, it was said, on his pitching days could part a room like Moses did the Red Sea, because he was so surly.

I’ve seen Verlander in the clubhouse before a game in which he’s scheduled to pitch, and there’s none of that Gibsonesque meanness. Instead, there’s looseness, joking, and a twinkle in the eye. Then he goes out there and hands you your rear end.

Justin Verlander is 25 years old. He’s 35-15, with over 300 strikeouts and a no-hitter in his first two seasons. And he’s just getting started.

Goodness gracious.

1 comment:

Monkeydarts said...

100% correct. Look for Bonderman to have an excellent year as a solid Petry to JV's Morris.