Decision to pull Verlander pays off for Jim Leyland

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Sending Justin Verlander back out to pitch the ninth against the Yankees with a 2-0 lead in Tuesday’s Game 3 was pretty much a no-brainer. It’s not like manager Jim Leyland was going to turn to Jose Valverde. 115 pitches is a pretty high total to be starting an inning with, but Verlander has been there before.

At that point, the ideal would have been for Verlander to finish his two-hit shutout at 125-130 pitches. The Yankees, of course, refused to go quietly in the ninth. Eduardo Nunez battled for eight pitches and then sent a hanging curve over the wall in left. 124.

Brett Gardner didn’t reach, but he too extended the reigning AL Cy Young and MVP. He tapped out to Verlander on the eighth pitch of the at-bat. 132.

That total tied Verlander’s career high for a regular season outing. He threw 132 pitches in 7 2/3 innings against the Red Sox on May 29, 2011 and again in striking out 14 Yankees in eight innings on Aug. 6 of this year. In all, he’s had four regular-season outings of 130 pitches, 20 of 125 or more and 47 of at least 120.

Verlander’s career high for a postseason start was 133 pitches in Game 5 of the 2011 ALCS against the Rangers. He also came in at 121 and 122 in his two starts against the A’s in the ALDS earlier this month.

So, letting Verlander carry on in the ninth would have put him into uncharted territory. And the truth is that Verlander wasn’t at his best in this one, even as he was racking up zeroes against the Yankees. He struggled all night to get ahead of hitters, and the fact that it took him 17 pitches to get one out of the ninth suggested he was done. That Phil Coke had pitched so well in the series and that the Yankees lineup was stacked with lefties made it an easier call for Leyland.

And Verlander didn’t seem broken up about it after the game. While he suggested he would have preferred to carry on, he also talked about how saving him for the rest of the postseason was important.

But I don’t think that was it. I think Leyland saw those last two at-bats against Verlander and thought Coke was his best option to get those final two outs. Otherwise, it probably would have been Verlander and that 140-pitch barrier be damned.

All worked out in the end, though not before Coke made things very interesting by giving up a pair of singles. Now it all goes well from here, Verlander will make his next start on seven days’ rest in Game 1 of the World Series.

Braves clinch NL East title

Ender Inciarte
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So much for a last-minute, nail-biting finish to this division race. The Braves cemented their division title with a dominant 5-3 finish over the Phillies on Saturday, laying claim to the NL East title for the first time since 2013.

The Braves asserted themselves right off the bat after amassing a four-run lead from Johan Camargo and Freddie Freeman, both of whom cleared the bases with two-run singles in the first two innings. Ronald Acuna Jr., meanwhile, found another way to make his presence known after swiping his 15th stolen base of the year and joining Alex Rodriguez, Orlando Cepeda, and Mike Trout as one of the youngest players to collect at least 25 home runs and 15 stolen bags in major league history.

Not to be outdone, Atlanta right-hander Mike Foltynewicz delivered one of the strongest starts of his season to date. The righty set down six innings of no-hit ball against the Phillies, and, with just 62 pitches under his belt, looked ready to go the distance before he lost his bid on Odubel Herrera‘s leadoff single in the seventh.

Unfortunately for the Braves, the Phillies not only upended Foltynewicz’s no-hit attempt, but the shutout as well. In the eighth inning, Cesar Hernandez and Rhys Hoskins wrestled two RBI singles from Atlanta’s bullpen and brought Philadelphia within one run of tying the game. Hoskins was the last Phillies batter to reach base, however, as Jonny Venters and Arodys Vizcaino tossed a combined 1 2/3 scoreless innings (backed by a final RBI hit from Kurt Suzuki in the bottom of the eighth) to cap the Braves’ win — and the NL East title.

With the loss, the Phillies sit seven games back of a wild card spot in the National League. They’ll need to outpace the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Cardinals in order to make 2018 their first postseason-qualifying year since 2011.