July 9th, 2012
The last time Curtis Granderson played center field behind Justin Verlander, he came up with a game-saving diving catch in the eighth inning. Fernando Rodney had already relieved Verlander at that point, on his way to his last save of a Verlander start.
That was the last scheduled regular-season game of 2009, a Tigers win that kept them alive for the one-game AL Central tiebreaker known as Game 163. Everyone knows how that story ended, and the dealing that happened afterwards — Granderson traded to New York, Rodney lost to free agency.
For one All-Star Game, they’ll all be teammates again, along with Miguel Cabrera. It wasn’t lost on Granderson, now a Yankees star.
“Justin’s obviously a great competitor,” Granderson said Monday. “He’s been a great teammate coming up. We made the team together in ’06, got a chance to be a part of a World Series together, and he’s continued just to blossom and grow and be one of the best pitchers in the game right now. And there’s no question why he’s the starter tomorrow.
“He’s dominant and he’s a guy that everyone talks about has the ability to throw a no-hitter every time he steps on the mound, and that’s a credit to him working hard and continuing to set the bar high.”
Verlander was a 19-game winner back then, a budding young arm still finding his full repertoire of pitches. He has found it in the two-plus years since Granderson became a Yankee.
“I would say, if anything, he’s found more ways to get you out,” Granderson said. “He used to trust, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw the fastball by you and I’m going to have a lot of success,’ but now he kind of messes with you a little bit.
“He knows he’s got the fastball. He’s got different fastballs now, some that are 91-93 [mph] and some that are 98-99. And any one can come out at any time. He’s got the changeup working now. He’s got the big curveball that he’s always had. And he can do it at any time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lefty or a righty, if you’ve had some hits off of him or if you haven’t, he’s got a good chance to get you out every time you step out there.”
Granderson, too, has blossomed, from one of the game’s great young center fielders into an All-Star starter and one of the most recognizable Yankees outside of the core group that has been there for years.
As for Rodney, that 2009 season was supposed to be his career year, a 37-save season that saw him blow only one save chance. He got the final four outs of that Verlander win, then tossed 48 pitches over three-plus innings two days later at Minnesota. At the very least, it was his payday season, drawing a two-year, $11 million contract offer from the Angels that winter. He recorded 17 saves over the course of that contract.
This year has been better, earning him his first All-Star selection. He’d still like one more chance to save a Verlander win.
The Tigers have turned to Justin Verlander for wins at Kauffman Stadium for seven years. Why wouldn’t the American League All-Stars?
Statistically, AL manager Ron Washington could’ve justified several choices for starting Tuesday’s All-Star Game, from Major League ERA leader and 2011 All-Star Game starter Jered Weaver to AL wins co-leader David Price to White Sox sensation Chris Sale. In the end, he turned to the man many recognize as the nastiest pitcher in baseball.
“He is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, not just the American League,” Washington said of Verlander at a Monday press conference at Arrowhead Stadium. “The joy that I have of giving him the ball tomorrow, he’s well-rested. I expect a lot out of him, and I know he expects a lot out of himself.”
Thus, a year after Verlander made the All-Star team but couldn’t pitch amidst a season that earned him MVP and Cy Young honors, he gets to make the first pitch.
“What an honor it is to start my first All-Star Game,” Verlander said Monday. “I’ve been to a few in the past and some I haven’t had the opportunity to pitch like last year and some I’ve pitched out of the bullpen. But this is something different, and I’m going to relish every moment and hopefully play a part in helping the American league win.”
Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder will bat fifth for the AL All-Stars. Former Tiger Curtis Granderson will start in center field behind Verlander for the first time since Game 162 (the game before the tiebreaker) of the 2009 season.
Verlander enters the All-Star break tied for the Major League lead with 128 strikeouts and topping the big leagues with 132 2/3 innings pitched and five complete games. His 2.58 ERA ranks him fourth among AL starters, while his nine victories put him two off the league-leading pace.
His WHIP ratio — walks plus hits to innings pitched — is 0.95, 96 hits and 30 walks over 132 2/3 innings. He’s averaging 0.7 home runs per nine innings, actually better than last year.
Verlander tossed a complete-game four-hitter last Wednesday to beat the Twins, his fourth win in his last five starts, then said he didn’t want a 2011 achievement award, starting an All-Star Game based on last year.
“Yeah, I had a good year last year, but I shouldn’t be [awarded] for that,” Verlander said last week. “If I get to start in the All-Star Game, I want to know it’s because I’ve been the best pitcher up to this point. …
“You’re not owed anything in this game. Whoever’s the best pitcher up to this point is owed that. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity last year. And who knows if I’d have had it anyway? [Jered] Weaver was really good up to that point as well.”
This numbers say he shouldn’t have to worry about that. As a result, Verlander will add an All-Star start to a resume that includes the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year award, a World Series start as a rookie, a Cy Young and an MVP, all before he turns 30 next February.
Verlander will be pitching on five days’ rest, and he won’t pitch again until Sunday in Baltimore, meaning he should be good for two innings of work if Washington wants that.
His history in Kansas City is impeccable, with a 9-2 record and 1.83 ERA. He hasn’t lost at Kauffman Stadium since 2009, going 4-0 in five starts. He tossed a 131-pitch complete game there April 16, during which manager Jim Leyland made the now-famous mound visit to tell his ace he was going to get him fired for leaving him in that long.
His success there prompted Verlander to joke what kind of reception he might get when he’s introduced.
“I can’t wait to see if I get booed or cheered,” he said last week. “It’s in Kansas City, but it’s AL, so they should be cheering for us. But it’s a division rival.”
He won’t have to wait long to take the field and find out.