DETROIT — Justin Verlander’s introduction to postseason baseball six years ago left him dazzled and exhausted.
Worn down toward the end of his rookie season, he made his playoff debut at Yankee Stadium. A couple weeks later, he was on the mound for Game 1 of the World Series.
“It was such a whirlwind, really, that entire season. I remember standing on the mound in old Yankee Stadium ... and growing up as a kid you see all of the postseason games and all of the magic that had happened in that stadium, and it was kind of a surreal moment for me,” the Detroit ace said.
“I feel like I have pitched in big games now and understand what my body’s going to be going through and what my mind is going to be going through and I am able to rein it in a little more and use it more to my advantage.”
Verlander is now 29 and he returns to the Fall Classic a more mature pitcher than he was in 2006. His last two seasons have been nothing short of phenomenal, and now he’s adding another line to his resume with the first truly outstanding postseason stretch of his career.
In three playoff starts against Oakland and the New York Yankees, he’s allowed all of two runs — a pair of harmless solo homers that did little to slow Detroit’s march to the American League pennant. On Wednesday night, he’ll pitch Game 1 against San Francisco.
“He’s learned to handle these situations. He’s learned how to stay pretty calm throughout the game in these big-game situations,” manager Jim Leyland said.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander can make pitching look remarkably effortless. Verlander will often settle into an early groove without necessarily reaching back for his triple-digit fastball until the later innings.
“I think you can help to build your natural ability,” said Verlander, who led the majors in pitches thrown in 2011 and 2012. “I think a lot of the work I do in the offseason in my lower half and my core allows me to stay strong throughout the game so that I don’t start to break down when I get to 100 pitches.”
Verlander went 24-5 in 2011, sweeping the AL MVP and Cy Young awards. Although he won only 17 games this year, his ERA was still a sparkling 2.64 and he came within two outs of throwing a third career no-hitter against Pittsburgh in May.
About the only thing he can’t seem to do is hit. Verlander is 0-for-his-career at the plate, although if he breaks that drought in the World Series, it’s fair to assume his teammates and manager will never hear the end of it.
After appearing on Conan O’Brien’s show and promoting a video game with model Kate Upton, Verlander’s newfound celebrity status doesn’t seem to have affected his pitching. He’s looked as focused as ever this postseason.
Detroit is trying to win its first World Series since 1984. Verlander will oppose Barry Zito in the opener.
“I had the opportunity to pitch in the World Series before,” Verlander said. “I don’t think I really appreciated the magnitude of how hard it is to get there.”
In 2006, Verlander started Game 1 of the World Series, and the Tigers lost to St. Louis 7-2. Verlander gave up six earned runs and made an error on a pickoff attempt, and Detroit couldn’t break through against Cardinals starter Anthony Reyes.
“No offense to him, because he beat us and all that, but we didn’t swing the bats well,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “I got a little worried right off the bat.”
Verlander threw two wild pitches and made another crucial error to help the Cardinals wrap up the series in the fifth game.
Those travails are all but forgotten now. With the season on the line in Game 5 of this year’s division series against Oakland, Verlander tossed a four-hit shutout and struck out 11 in one of the best games ever pitched by a Tiger in the postseason. Detroit then swept New York in four games in the AL championship series.
Verlander allowed a homer in the ninth inning in Game 3 of the ALCS, falling just short of becoming the first pitcher to throw consecutive shutouts in the postseason since Orel Hershiser did it for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. Detroit won anyway, 2-1.
On Wednesday night, Verlander will go back to work, with his usual businesslike attitude and tireless approach. He’s well aware that no matter how talented you are, anything can happen in October.
“This is the game of baseball,” he said. “I don’t think myself nor the Tigers take anything for granted, no matter who’s on the mound.”