David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
By sweeping the Yankees, Jim Leyland has been afforded the luxury of setting up his rotation for the World Series however he pleases. Despite the obvious temptation, the Tigers' manager has no plans to start his supernatural ace, Justin Verlander, three times in the Fall Classic.
Last October, the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter became the first pitcher since the Diamondbacks' Curt Schilling in 2001 to take the mound for three starts in a World Series. Tony La Russa got the chance to use Carpenter a third time when Game 6 was postponed a day by rain. He earned the Game 7 win, allowing two runs in six innings.
Of course, Leyland could always change his mind, and if rain plays a role in this World Series, Verlander could start a Game 7, should it be necessary. In the last 19 World Series, a seventh game has been required only four times, so the odds are against it. But the idea of Verlander continuing his current stretch of dominance for another three starts is something everyone would like to see -- except the National League champion, obviously.
In three postseason starts this October, Verlander is 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA, 25 strikeouts and 10 hits allowed in 24 1/3 innings. He has walked five and opponents have batted .122 against him. He is only the third Tigers pitcher to win three games in one postseason, joining Mickey Lolich (1968, all in the World Series), Jack Morris (1984) and Kenny Rogers (2006).
"It seems like in the last two years, every time Justin's come out, he's at a new level, a new plateau," Morris said this past week at Comerica Park. "And I wouldn't doubt that continues as we go through the rest of this postseason and beyond."
Morris, like Verlander, never wanted to surrender the baseball and was legendary for that bulldog tenacity. He described Verlander as having "more God-given ability than 99.9 percent of the world ever sees" and recalled a pep talk he had with Verlander in spring training in which the two talked about evolving into the game's most dominant pitcher.
Verlander looks as though he's arrived at that point. He is a favorite to claim his second straight Cy Young Award when the winner is announced next month. He's been so untouchable lately that when the Yankees struck out only three times in 8 1/3 innings in ALCS Game 3 on Tuesday night, people wondered what might be wrong with him.
If not for Eduardo Nuñez's leadoff homer in the ninth, Verlander would have had a chance to become the first pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1988 to throw back-to-back playoff shutouts. He threw 132 pitches but wanted to finish off the Yankees anyway.
"I think that's what managers are for, to stop us from doing those type of things," Verlander said. "Obviously, I don't think I would come out of any game all season. I might throw 200 [pitches] three starts in a row. Probably wouldn't last long doing that. Who knows?"
Ah, yes. Pitch counts. The eternal debate. Verlander averaged more than 100 pitches per start during the regular season and led the majors with 238 1/3 innings. That throwback mentality obviously pleases Morris, who took a shot at teams that coddle their starters, without mentioning Stephen Strasburg by name.
"I think everybody in the Washington Nationals' front office should pay attention that guys should go deep into games," Morris said. "When I see CC [Sabathia] complete a game two days after Justin did [during the ALDS], it reminds me there's still hope because I believe the pitch count is overrated.
"I think the whole thing will come to fruition -- the cycle, the experiment -- and they will see that there is value in starting pitching to go deep into games. I know guys can do it. I know they still can do it."
Exhibit A is Verlander. But there can be dangers, too. After Carpenter's workload last October, he made only three starts this season after recovering from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition in which compressed nerves cause weakness in the neck and chest area. It wasn't a direct result of pitching the Cardinals to a world title, but the syndrome can be related to piling up innings over the years.
For now, the Tigers are worried only about winning four more games -- with the hope Verlander can get at least two of them.