- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
DETROIT -- By the second inning on "Sunday Night Baseball," Justin Verlander had started to throw his curveball for strikes, and while the Chicago White Sox had an early 1-0 lead because of Alejandro De Aza's leadoff home run in the first, the Chicago hitters probably had a sense that they might be finished scoring against Verlander for the evening.
Verlander's curveball is one of the few in the majors that can spin at a rate of more than 3,000 revolutions per minute, and if that was the only pitch he threw, then maybe the White Sox would've had a chance. But inning by inning, Verlander's velocity ticked up, peaking in the seventh inning, when he hit 100 mph on the radar gun repeatedly, as he crossed the 100-pitch mark. This is common for the Tigers' ace, as he seemingly unloads the tank near the end of an outing. This season, opponents are 12-for-97 (.124) with a .198 OBP, .332 OPS, one extra-base hit (a double) and 43 strikeouts against Verlander after his 100th pitch.
Along the way, one of the many self-deprecating White Sox jokingly asked if I could flip a ball into the on-deck circle. "I want to remember what it's like to make contact," he said.
There are other great pitchers in the majors, but Verlander and Felix Hernandez are among the very elite, those who can seemingly impose their will on a game and just decide that scoring has ceased. By the fifth inning, the presence of the White Sox hitters just seemed irrelevant, with Verlander quickly getting the ball and firing it, wherever he wanted to, whether it was a knee-bending curveball or a fastball. Pedro Martinez had this ability. So did Johan Santana and Roger Clemens.
Verlander is like Clemens in another way, as well.
With their 4-2 win over Chicago, the Detroit Tigers tied the White Sox atop the AL Central standings, so this was one of the most important regular-season games that Verlander has had in his career -- and like Clemens, he can sometimes struggle with the pressure he puts on himself. In some of Clemens' postseason starts, he tended to fight his own adrenaline early in games, sometimes ramping up his pitch count quickly, sometimes giving up an initial burst of runs.
This is what has happened to Verlander in some of his postseason starts, and maybe what happened in the first inning of this year's All-Star Game. The desire to be great, to be the ace, has sometimes been paralyzing early in games. Verlander seems to be learning how to cope with this; he talked on Saturday about knowing that after the initial wave of adrenaline comes and goes in a big-stage, high-pressure game, you get into the flow of the action.
This is what happened Sunday, and Verlander was phenomenal, living up to the billing of Best Pitcher on the Planet in a big game against Chicago Cy Young candidate Chris Sale. Verlander had thrown 114 pitches through the seventh inning, and his last pitch was 99 mph. He dispatched the White Sox with just 10 pitches in the eighth before striding off the mound with the most strikeouts and innings of any pitcher in the majors this season. He accepted the handshake of his manager and gave a wave of acknowledgement to the fans.
Verlander said in conversation last winter that he really doesn't set numerical goals, but he does have one overall standard for himself: He wants to do everything possible to make the Hall of Fame.
On nights when he throws as well as he did Sunday, his induction seems inevitable.
The Tigers finished off the sweep, John Lowe writes. The loss dropped the White Sox into a tie, Mark Gonzales writes. The White Sox were without Adam Dunn, who continues to get treatment for a strained oblique.
• Teammates tease Chipper Jones relentlessly and good-naturedly about his age, about being so old that he might have played against Babe Ruth, and about being Brett Favre in waffling about his retirement. (Jones is not waffling at all, by the way; he's retiring.)
But the Atlanta Braves still really need Jones, who has played a major role for them this year. He was The Man on Sunday, providing a huge boost at a time when the Braves desperately needed it. From David O'Brien's story:
- "It was certainly another one of those games I'll never forget," Jones said after his ninth walk-off homer and second this season, both against the rival Phillies. "Nothing beats that. That's as good as it gets for a baseball player. To be able to walk off the field [with a win] especially in the situation we were in ..."
- The Braves trailed 7-1 after three innings and 7-3 after eight, before Martin Prado hit a two-out, bases-loaded single off the glove of third baseman Kevin Frandsen in the ninth.
- Jones followed with his 428-foot homer to right-center field, another in the string of dramatic moments he's produced in what's been a magical ride this year for the 40-year-old switch-hitter, who is retiring after the season.
Justin Verlander has the desire to be great, and sometimes that can present challenges, writes Buster Olney.