SAN FRANCISCO -- Slightly more than three months removed from his 23rd birthday, Justin Verlander toed the rubber at Comerica Park for Game 1 of the 2006 World Series. Participating in the Fall Classic for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, the Tigers were hoping their young ace could deliver them one step closer to a title.
Instead, Verlander floundered, giving up seven runs in five innings of a blowout loss to the Cardinals. The Tigers never recovered. And that was that.
What Verlander did not realize at the time was how rare those opportunities can be. Even more than a half-decade of elite pitching could not bring Verlander back to the World Series until now, at AT&T Park, where he will start Game 1 against the Giants on Wednesday evening at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.
Cy Young matchup
|Date||Game||Pitchers and WS teams||Winner|
|11/1/2010||5||Cliff Lee/Rangers vs. Tim Lincecum/Giants||Giants|
|10/27/2010||1||Cliff Lee/Rangers vs. Tim Lincecum/Giants||Giants|
|10/28/2009||1||Cliff Lee/Phillies vs. CC Sabathia/Yankees||Phillies|
|10/27/1999||4||John Smoltz/Braves vs. Roger Clemens/Yankees||Yankees|
|10/22/1996||3||David Cone/Yankees vs. Tom Glavine/Braves||Yankees|
|10/26/1995||5||Greg Maddux/Braves vs. Orel Hershiser/Indians||Indians|
|10/21/1995||1||Orel Hershiser/Indians vs. Greg Maddux/Braves||Braves|
|10/14/1983||3||Mike Flanagan/Orioles vs. Steve Carlton/Phillies||Orioles|
"I had a rude awakening in the years after that, and I think it allowed me to appreciate it all the more that I'm here now and getting the opportunity to start Game 1 again," Verlander, now 29 years old and on the cusp of his 12th career postseason start, said. "Just being able to take it in a little bit more, having some experience under my belt and having been in situations like this allows me not to be so wide-eyed."
These days, it is opposing hitters who are wide-eyed, especially given Verlander's vast improvements since that October night in Detroit. The right-hander's baseball life is richer, in a sense, with a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP and a Cy Young (and perhaps a second Cy on the way next month). He is more experienced, with a sharper knowledge of what it takes to win in October.
But most importantly, he is flat-out better. Like many flamethrowers in their late 20s, Verlander has learned when best to scale back his attacks and when to unleash his triple-digit heat, still the primary weapon in his arsenal. As a result, Verlander has recently given the Tigers some of the best pitching of his life, going 7-0 with a 0.69 ERA, 52 strikeouts and 11 walks over his last seven starts, three of them in the playoffs.
Verlander was critical in dispatching the A's in the American League Division Series and the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, winning all three games he started with a 0.74 ERA.
If the Tigers are to win their first World Series title since 1984, they may need him to be just as good.
Tale of the Tape: Game 1
|2012 regular season|
|Overall: 33 GS, 17-8, 2.64 ERA, 60 BB, 239 K||Overall: 32 GS, 15-8, 4.15 ERA, 70 BB, 114 K|
|Key stat: He has posted a 0.69 ERA in his last seven starts, going back to the regular season.||Key stat: Including the postseason, he has lasted at least 5 2/3 innings and allowed no more than three runs in six of his last seven starts.|
|At AT&T Park|
Career: 1 GS, 0-0, 3.00 ERA
| 2012: 17 GS, 8-5, 4.00 ERA
Career: 86 GS, 30-35, 4.21 ERA
|Against this opponent|
Career: 1 GS, 0-0, 3.00 ERA
Career:16 GS, 8-6, 2.91 ERA
|Loves to face: Marco Scutaro: 5-for-25, 9 K
Hates to face: Angel Pagan: 2-for-5, 3B, RBI
|Loves to face: Omar Infante: 3-for-20, 4 K
Hates to face: Delmon Young: 2-for-3, 2B, RBI
|Why he'll win: He has dominated throughout the postseason and owns a career 2.64 ERA in Interleague Play, including 1.62 this year.||Why he'll win: Zito threw seven shutout innings in Game 5 of the NLCS, and the Tigers have been weaker against left-handed pitching.|
|Pitcher beware: Verlander gave up 10 runs -- seven earned -- over 11 innings in his other World Series appearance, in 2006.||Pitcher beware: AL clubs reached Zito for 16 earned runs on 23 hits and four homers in 14 2/3 innings this season.|
|Bottom line: Verlander is the Tigers' ace, one of the elite pitchers in baseball and has been pitching at his best of late.||Bottom line: Zito's well-paid tenure with the Giants has been shaky, but he came up huge in his last start, with the season on the line.|
"The only thing you do is you go out there and you compete," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of facing the AL's reigning Cy Young Award winner. "We know what great stuff he has. You're talking [about] one of the elite pitchers ever in the game, as hard as he throws and his other pitches. You hope your hitters look forward to seeing him."
Not likely. Though Verlander has not faced the Giants since 2008, taking a no-decision, he does boast some positive history against several of their hitters. The six active Giants with experience against him have hit a combined .226 with three extra-base hits and zero home runs.
The rest of them will be facing Verlander for the first time -- never an easy task considering the right-hander's electric repertoire and growing unpredictability. Yet, should the Giants have designs on beating the Tigers, they will need to down Verlander at least twice -- he is tentatively scheduled to start Games 1 and 5, and could be available for a potential Game 7 as well.
Though Verlander has not pitched in more than a week, he did not allow a run in two regular-season starts with six or more days of rest.
"I feel comfortable with all my pitchers," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, sitting alongside his ace on World Series workout day. "Obviously, I feel real comfortable with the one to my left."
And Verlander personally feels so much more comfortable than he did in his first Fall Classic appearance. Experience, he says, is a significant reason why. Desire is another. Not that a young Verlander ever scoffed at the significance of his first World Series, but, in his own words, "I don't think I really appreciated the magnitude of how hard it is to get there.
"I realized how lucky I was to get there in 2006 after a couple more seasons," Verlander continued. "I wasn't worried that I'd never get back, but I realized how difficult it was looking back at it."
So six years later, the Giants will face a hungry, experienced Verlander on extra rest, coming off one of the best seven-start runs of his already sterling career.
Not surprisingly, the Tigers like their Game 1 chances.
"The only way to learn how your body is going to respond to these situations is having been in them before," Verlander said. "So I think that's what has made it easier for me."