10/22/06 1:10 AM ET
Verlander bested by Pujols
Tigers right-hander victimized by Cards slugger in opener
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
Runner on second, first base open. Arguably the best hitter in the game at the plate. Pitch to Albert Pujols or pitch around him? Discuss.
The quick and most logical approach would be to pitch around the Cardinals slugger. And it appeared that was the plan as understood by Tigers rookie Justin Verlander and his manager, Jim Leyland, during Game 1 of the World Series on Saturday night at Comerica Park. But when the opportunity presented itself in the third inning, Verlander's offering didn't go where it was intended.
And Pujols, being Pujols, hit it out, sending the ball to right field to give the Cardinals a 4-1 lead. That was more than enough for Anthony Reyes and Co. to coast to a 7-2 win.
Although the Cardinals had no difficulty pouring on the runs, it was Pujols' homer that arguably sealed this win for St. Louis.
Clearly, the plan was to pitch around Pujols -- to a degree. Tigers manager Jim Leyland said as much during a mid-game interview on FOX, when he acknowledged that Verlander was supposed to be pitching around the feared Cardinals slugger, but that pitch -- a fastball -- tailed back over the plate. It was supposed to be away, out of the strike zone, because they noticed Pujols was chasing some balls during the National League Championship Series.
Leyland was less forthcoming about the sequence after the game.
"I could go into a lot of detail about that, but I'll leave it at this," Leyland said. "The manager's decision is either to pitch to him or walk him. I pitched to him, and obviously he burned us.
"I'm not going to get into a lot of explanation about what the thinking was. But I take the bullet there, and if somebody gives criticism you accept it, because it's ultimately my decision. I'll leave it at that and I'll take the heat for that. But that's just the way we went about it. Obviously that's not the way it was supposed to be, but that's fine."
Verlander defended the pitch, calling it one that wasn't bad, had it been to anyone else standing at the plate. But because it was Pujols, then yes, the high-and-away fastball was one he'd like to have back.
"I didn't want to pitch around him," Verlander said. "I wanted to make quality pitches. The one I made was a little bit of a mistake. It wasn't a horrible pitch at all, by any means. It was [on the] black, it was a little up, and he's one of the best hitters in the game. They get paid to hit good pitches, too."
Asked if he was surprised they didn't walk him with first base open, Pujols responded, "Nope."
"I just go out there and just try -- don't take my aggression away," he said. "If they decide to pitch around me, I know that those guys [behind me] can drive it in. I just go out there and just try to see the ball and put a good swing, and that's what I did. It's so tough, when you have a guy throwing 95, 99 miles an hour, to think too much when you're at the plate. I just try to see the ball."
While issuing an intentional walk didn't seem to be in Leyland or Verlander's plans, it also wasn't their intention to go right after the slugging first baseman. A happy medium, somewhere in between, probably would have sufficed.
"I wouldn't say I attacked him, no," Verlander said. "It's a situation where it doesn't matter who's at the plate, you really don't want to give them too much of an opportunity to hurt you there with two outs and a guy on second base. With Albert Pujols, you still need to be more careful than somebody else. He hit a good pitch."
The same could be said about a lot of Cardinals hitters. Although they struck out eight times, they tagged Verlander for six hits and seven runs, six of which were earned. Scott Rolen knocked two hits off the rookie right-hander, one of which was a solo homer in the second that tied the game at 1-1.
"We tried to throw strikes to every hitter, for sure," catcher Pudge Rodriguez said. "But today, I didn't feel his command was there. He left a lot of balls over the plate, got behind a few hitters, and the ball that Pujols hit, opposite-field home run, was up and away. It was a good pitch to hit. To [Jim] Edmonds [in the sixth], he just left a fastball right over the plate for a base hit. That happens. He's been doing a good job. He just had a rough night."
As he walked off the field with runners on second and third and nobody out in the sixth, with his club trailing by a handful of runs, Verlander felt a rush of disappointment for not keeping up his end of the bargain in the most important series of his young career.
"I'm thinking, 'I got Game 1 and I kind of let my guys down a little bit,'" Verlander said. "I obviously wanted to do all I can for my team to give them a chance to win, and I don't feel I did that tonight."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.