It's hard to imagine how life could get any better for Justin Verlander. Not only is he the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner at the top of his game, but his grandfather just confirmed in an interview with the website Celebuzz that Verlander is dating swimsuit model Kate Upton.
Verlander's got game, and he's got girl. But there is one thing he doesn't have, something that -- unfortunately for the Yankees -- will drive him to pitch his very best Tuesday night in Game 3 of the ALCS in Detroit.
Verlander doesn't have a World Series ring. He doesn't even have a World Series win.
Verlander, who lost both of his World Series starts as a rookie in 2006, wants to be one of the greats, wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Morris, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, three of his idols. To do that, he's got to eliminate the one thing that stands in his way: the Yankees, who will be starting Phil Hughes opposite him Tuesday night.
"Obviously, that's a dream of mine, to help pitch my team to a World Series championship," Verlander told reporters in a conference call Monday. "That's a big reason why I admire those guys. You talk about Roger and Curt, and obviously everybody knows what they did in the postseason. I want to be associated with those guys, a guy that stepped up in the postseason for my team. I helped us get here to the second round, but my job is not over."
That's bad news for the Yankees' lineup, which has been held scoreless in the first two games except for a four-run explosion against closer-on-hiatus Jose Valverde in Game 1.
It's hard to imagine Verlander having a more dominant game than he had in ALDS Game 5 in Oakland. Allowing four hits and striking out 11, he became the first AL pitcher to post a postseason shutout in a winner-take-all game since Morris in 1991.
Verlander piled up a Division Series-record 22 strikeouts in two starts against the A's, who managed one run in 16 innings against the fireballer. Dating to Sept. 14, all Verlander has done is go 6-0 with a 0.61 ERA, allowing 31 hits and striking out 49 in 44 innings.
Manager Jim Leyland said the biggest difference between the rookie pitcher who lost twice in the World Series and the 29-year-old pitcher who is on top of the world right now is mental.
"I think it's totally maturity level," Leyland said. "I think he needed to learn to caress the pressure. That's very important. He's not as fidgety as he would have been a couple of years ago, more comfortable with the situation than he was . . .
"He's figured out different ways to get people out without overexerting himself. I think a lot of it is how you handle this stuff mentally. I think he has grown leaps and bounds in that area."
Catcher Alex Avila said Verlander has evolved from a thrower into a more sophisticated pitcher over the years, learning to mix more sliders and changeups in with a fastball that reaches 100 mph.
Said Avila: "The confidence that we're going to win the game when he's on the mound is about as high as you can get."