Tigers ace Justin Verlander will start Game 1 of the World Series today

10/24/2012
BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander throws during a workout at Comerica Park on Monday in Detroit.
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander throws during a workout at Comerica Park on Monday in Detroit.

SAN FRANCISCO — Justin Verlander didn’t lose much sleep after the Tigers fell softly in the 2006 World Series.

He was only 23 years old, and surely there would be many opportunities for redemption on baseball’s biggest stage.

Just get ’em next time.

“Everything was kind of a whirlwind, and I don't think I really appreciated the magnitude of how hard it is to get there,” Verlander said Tuesday night. “You know, I think I had a rude awakening in the years after that.”

Six years later, he is back and armed with a reformed perspective.

As Verlander prepares to start Game 1 of the Fall Classic later today in San Francisco, he is confident this time around will be different.

For him and the Tigers.

The 6-foot-5 right-hander, who took two losses in 2006 against the Cardinals, now makes his pitches count when it matters most — setting up a stirring showdown of contrasts against soft-tossing left-hander Barry Zito.

Zito is a lot like the Giants, who won six straight elimination games after spotting the Reds a 2-0 lead in the division series and the Cardinals a 3-1 advantage in the championship series. Just when you bury him, he delivers the type of effort that earns him the nod to open the World Series.

Zito had largely been a bust since signing a seven-year, $126 million contract before the 2007 season and hit bottom when the Giants left him off the postseason roster in their championship 2010 season. But he sprung back with 15 wins this season — the Giants have won each of his last 13 starts — and tossed 7 2/3 shutout innings in Game 5 of the NLCS.

“This means a lot,” Zito said. “It’s hard to reflect and really become third-person about this experience. It's more about right now just going out and preparing for a ballgame against a good team. I can look back on everything when I'm back home.”

Verlander, meanwhile, remains the biggest source of hope in the Tigers’ push to win their first World Series since 1984.

A year after sweeping the AL MVP and Cy Young awards, Verlander had a 2.64 ERA this season — and carried the success into October. Casting aside postseason disappointments past, he allowed just two runs in three starts against Oakland and New York.

Verlander said his first World Series experience will help him with this one.

“It allows me to appreciate it all the more that I'm here now and getting the opportunity to start Game 1 again,” he said. “Having some experience under my belt and having been in situations like this allows me not to be so wide-eyed and be a little calmer and take things in.”

Detroit manager Jim Leyland has the same appreciation. If this exasperating season taught him anything, baseball is a funny game. A Tigers team buttressed by big-money acquisition Prince Fielder was expected to cruise into the playoffs, only to have a losing record through 83 games, trail the White Sox by three games with 15 remaining, and inspire whispers of Leyland's future with the club.

Then the Tigers set off on a rally that has no end in sight. Leyland knows these chances come along along only so often.

“I don't think anybody ever understands the magnitude of being one of the final two,” Leyland said. “When you go into spring training, there's 30 teams, and if somebody were to tell you at the beginning of spring training you'd be one of the final two standing, it's hard to … It's very, very difficult to get here, there's no question about that.

“We're excited about it. When you get to the World Series, it's a thrill of a lifetime. This is what we do for a living. We don't get here very often. Nobody does. So you just appreciate it and you go about your business trying to win it.”

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.