Five years ago, Justin Verlander walked into Yankee Stadium and stuck around long enough to turn a series around by pitching into the sixth inning.
The Tigers won that afternoon and then advanced to the World Series before Verlander dropped two of the four games against the Cardinals.
Now he is the one who could potentially set the tone with a Game 1 start tonight against CC Sabathia.
But the Verlander who pitched for the pennant-winning Tigers was a three-pitch pitcher (fastball, curveball and changeup). Five yeas ago, Verlander threw 67 percent fastballs but now that number is down to 57 percent.
That’s because Verlander has begun throwing sliders and realizing that fastballs are not the answer to everything.
“Justin has pretty much taken it step-by-step,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. “He had the big year in 2006. Then he went through a little bit of a humbling period. He has made adjustments mentally, he has made adjustments physically. He has figure some things out that you don’t have to throw it 100 miles per hour every pitch. You can pitch to contact a little bit more at times and save it for when you do need a strikeout.”
“You think about when he first came up and this is a man that has four pitches,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He has always had the great fastball, but I think what you see is the consistency in his other pitches. He has four pitches that he can get you out with at any time and that’s probably the biggest difference from when he first came up.”
On Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, Verlander rarely threw his slider. He threw it five times, while throwing 50 fastballs in an outing where he allowed three runs and four walks in six innings. A month later in Detroit, Verlander had a similar line in six innings with similar pitch selection (72 fastballs, four sliders).
Through that point, Verlander was throwing his slider six percent of the time. Over the rest of the regular season, Verlander threw that pitch approximately nine percent of the time and it might be a significant reason for his dominance from that point on.
After his last matchup with the Yankees, Verlander finished the year with an astounding 22-2 record and 2.08 ERA. He started the run with a no-hitter in Toronto and the rest of the year Verlander allowed 47 earned runs in 203 innings while striking out 199 and issuing just 40 walks.
“I’ve definitely been a better pitcher,” Verlander said. “I noticed I’ve looked back at those couple of starts, I had four walks in both of them, which is not me and it hasn’t been me in a while.
“The roll I was on in the middle of the season, it was the best I felt for six or seven or eight starts in a row for my career. Do I wish I could stay on that for the rest of the season? Yes, but it doesn’t happen that way. My changeup has come and gone; my curveball has come and gone. At every point, everything is not quite right.”
Not including the postseason, Verlander is 4-3 with a 3.97 ERA in 10 starts against the Yankees. He has pitched 56 2/3 innings, allowed 58 hits, walked 27 and struck out 54 while pitching to a 1.50 WHIP.
“We’re facing the head of the class,” Alex Rodriguez said. “He’s a great pitcher. He’s having an historical year.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher for all your postseason updates.