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Published: 10/18/2012

Verlander is the Tigers’ Secretariat

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

DETROIT — When Tigers fans of a certain age talk World Series, and there is a lot of such chatter these days, there is a warm spot in their hearts for the 1968 Fall Classic.

Mickey Lolich started three games and won three games. He took the mound for Game 7 on two days rest. Imagine that. When did one pitch count end and the next begin?

As big as he was, no pun intended, Lolich wasn’t considered the big-game pitcher in that series. That was Bob Gibson of the Cardinals and, truthfully, he may have been the biggest of all the big-gamers. The right-hander with the nasty fastball, nastier stuff, and nastiest mood struck out 17 batters in Game 1 in ’68. He was 7-2 with a 1.89 earned run average during his career in postseason play.

Gibson is certainly on anybody’s list. Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford … they are all there.

So is Jack Morris. Nasty? The only way to get the ball from Morris in a big game was to pry it from his cold, dead fingers. And Morris, who is here for the Tigers’ ALCS against New York, hasn’t had to look far to find a current Detroit pitcher cut from the same cloth.

Morris’ nominee to join the list, maybe a little soon, but maybe not, is Justin Verlander.

“It seems like the last two years, Justin’s game has come out at a new level, a new plateau,” Morris said. “And I wouldn’t doubt that continues as we go through the rest of this postseason and beyond.”

Before Eduardo Nunez homered in a terrific at-bat to open the ninth inning Tuesday night in Game 3, a game the Tigers held on to win 2-1, Verlander had authored a streak of 23 consecutive scoreless innings.

All Tiger starters had combined to go 38 innings without allowing an earned run.

Max Scherzer was scheduled to try to improve on those mind-boggling numbers Wednesday night before major league baseball produced a no-rain rainout that set Game 4 of the best-of-seven series back to late this afternoon.

When the game was called at about 9:15, roughly an hour after its scheduled start, not a drop of precipitation had landed on the sellout crowd at Comerica Park, and temperatures were still in the mid-60s.

It was a beautiful night for baseball. A little knowledge, in this case courtesy of weather radar, can be a dangerous thing.

What this does to the Tigers’ momentum — four straight postseason wins and a 3-0 lead in this series — remains to be seen.

To date, though, the pitching has been tremendous, whether it has been spun by Scherzer, Doug Fister, or Anibal Sanchez.

Verlander, of course, has been at the forefront.

For several years, Morris, who starred for the Tigers in the ’84 World Series and was even more dominant while with Minnesota in the ’91 postseason, watched Verlander and “saw a young kid with more God-given talent than 99.9 percent of the world ever sees. I wanted to make sure that he knew that. So I had some words with him last spring to let him know those things and to let him know what I thought I saw in him and how I anticipated these kinds of days would come.”

Since that conversation, Verlander is 46-14 with a silly-low ERA. He won the Cy Young and league MVP awards a year ago and ol’ Cy isn’t out of the question this time around either.

Verlander was a good pitcher before then. Very good, at times. Now, he is threatening to certify himself as one of those very rare dudes, one of those guys on that list we were talking about earlier. That’s a guy who lifts his team onto his shoulders every five days and, in big games, must-win games, finds a way to dial it up even more.

Verlander went the distance for a complete-game shutout of Oakland in Game 5 of the ALDS. On Tuesday, he threw 132 pitches in 8 1/3 innings of work.

After Nunez’s leadoff home run in the ninth, manager Jim Leyland went to the mound but did not make a change.

“I asked him, ‘You have one more hitter, one more out?’” Leyland said.

“Absolutely,” said Verlander.

And he did.

“Normally, I guess you don’t take Secretariat out in the final furlong, but that was pretty much it for him,” Leyland said.

Verlander is definitely his horse.

But he’s not alone in the stable.

“I’ll tell you what,” Morris said. “Justin gets the majority of attention as he probably should because he’s on a different level. But, you know, Sanchez’s game in New York, was pretty darn good. And Fister, I’m a big fan, ever since he put on a Tiger uniform. And Scherzer, to me, he could strike out more than Justin. He has movement, he is funky. He has it all too.

“So you look at the numbers in the postseason, all the Tigers staff has been lights out.”

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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