There are no shortage of reasons why Justin Verlander has cemented his place in Cooperstown. Primary among them is a throwback toughness he's been able to channel in October when his team's back is up against the wall. He's won four games while facing elimination, tied for the most in MLB history. He hurled two spectacular deciding Game 5s against the Oakland A's while a member of the Detroit Tigers and seven scoreless innings in Game 6 of the 2017 ALCS against the New York Yankees.
Verlander is a special breed; a workhorse with almost unmatched pedigree and competitive fire. When he wants the ball, you give him the ball. He's earned that trust. Even if it's on short rest.
So it's perfectly understandable why A.J. Hinch trusted him to close out the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 4. The thinking was simple. Vanquish the plucky underdogs and have Gerrit Cole locked and loaded for the ALCS opener. But baseball, as it tends to do, happened.
The home team jumped on Verlander for four runs and seven hits in 3.2 innings of work and cruised to a series-tying victory. In accordance with law, the second-guessing came fast and furious. Both player and manager refused to pin the failure on the short rest elephant.
“The low-hanging fruit is to say this was short rest and that’s the reason why,” Verlander said. “I don’t think so. I felt good physically. I just didn’t execute.”
“In the postseason, you ask somebody to do something that's not normal, it's always a little nerve-wracking,” Hinch said. “But [Verlander] felt great, and he made a lot of really good pitches and got a lot of swings and misses [12 among 84 pitches]. I would have felt bad with any decision that led to three runs in the bottom of the first. If we would have gone with Urquidy and he would have done that, it would have been, ‘Should you have put a rookie in that situation?’”
The stage now shifts to Houston, where Cole must ensure that the best team in baseball is not bounced before the AL semifinal round. All of the pressure is on the mighty Astros. Tampa Bay is playing with house money (but as always, being extremely economical with it).
Cole must become Verlander. He must become the stopper. The formidable righty with ice in his veins. This is why the Astros are so fearsome. Having a backup Verlander is an embarrassment of riches.
Cole went 20-5 this year with a league-leading 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts. His WHIP was a paltry 0.885. In short, he has the tools. What he doesn't have as much as, though, is experience. This will be his seventh and most important postseason start. He's never known the pressure of a winner-take-all game.