(Detroit Free Press) -- The stakes weren’t quite as high back then, some 16 years ago, when Justin Verlander took the mound for Goochland High School in a late-round game in the Virginia high school baseball playoffs.
But Verlander’s intensity was all too familiar.
“He had that mentality,” former Goochland coach Bryan Gordon said. “I don’t want to say it meant as much as the last two games against the Yankees, but he was a pitcher and he was out there to get the job done.”
Verlander has done his job, and perhaps more, since the Astros shuttled three prospects to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for the ace right-hander just minutes before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline. Now he's back pitching at the highest level, which on Wednesday means he'll return to the World Series for the third time in his career when the Astros play the Dodgers in Game 2 in Los Angeles.
Verlander, who is 4-0 with a 1.46 ERA this postseason, has conquered nearly every challenge thrown his way during his 13-year career. Yet a championship has eluded him, just as that playoff win did during his high school days.
The details of the game escape Gordon’s memory, but he remembers Verlander pitched the entire game. Goochland lost, 1-0. The winning run scored on a passed ball. And afterwards, he sent a message to his mad-as-heck youngster:
“It was a heck of a ballgame and he did his job,” Gordon said. “And the last thing I told him was, ‘You’re going to get better because the people around you are going to get better. And I think it’s true.”
'Something special from Day 1'
That Verlander is back in the World Series is not as much a product of the people around him as it is being the missing piece on an already talented team. He had turned in a string of dominant starts well before the Tigers traded him two months ago.
But without Verlander’s three starts this postseason – especially his season-saving performance in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees – the Astros would not have sniffed such success. And without the Astros and this postseason, Verlander would not be putting the finishing touches on what should be a Hall of Fame career, including the distinction of perhaps the best big-game pitcher of this generation.
Tigers fans who followed Verlander during his career are familiar with his postseason prowess. The Game 5 shutout against the Athletics in 2012 and the eight shutout innings against them the next season stand out as his best postseason moments before this year. Even in 2006, he showed his potential on the big stage by making his first postseason start against the Yankees at old Yankee Stadium.
“He’s been that guy for a long time,” former Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “You could see that early in his career. He’s always been one of those guys that you can count on to step up.”
Leyland wasn’t the least bit concerned with starting a rookie in Game 2 of the AL Division Series that year, as the Yankees threatened to put a stop to the Tigers’ storybook season by jumping ahead 2-0 in the series. That’s because the rookie was Verlander, whom he hand-picked to make the team after just a short showing in spring training.
“I wasn’t worried about that at all,” Leyland said. “You could see in spring training he had something special and it was just a matter of letting it happen. This guy was something special from Day 1.”
'A hell of a pitcher'
Verlander gutted through five-plus innings that day, lamenting a Johnny Damon three-run home run as his only mistake. He gave the Tigers an inspired effort which they eventually capped off with a 4-3 win. They took the road split, won two more against the Yankees at home and advanced to the World Series, where their youth was exposed in five games against the Cardinals. Verlander took two losses in the series.
Winning a championship is something Verlander's been thinking about since even before high school in Goochland, Va., idolizing Nolan Ryan. A third shot at the World Series was the main reason he trusted his instincts and waived his no-trade clause to Houston. It's also something he knows is hard to attain; he was part of a few great Tigers teams that never got that far, and the two that did were dispatched easily.
“I’ve been very fortunate my entire career to feel like I had a team we had a chance to win a World Series,” he told reporters after beating the Yankees in Game 6. “It’s not easy to get here. And I don’t take any of this for granted. And this is what you play for. These are the experiences that you remember at the end of your career when you look back, winning these games, just playing for the World Series. Hopefully winning the World Series.”
He is wearing a different uniform now and has a beard to accompany the mustache he’s had since his high school days. His glove is black, not tan like it was during his rookie season, his cleats Under Armour and not Reebok. But the pitcher that grew up in these parts still has that same look in his eye. The same big-game mentality that makes him one of the best trade-deadline acquisitions in some time.
Said Gordon: “I just remember a hell of a pitcher. When he stepped onto the field, it was all baseball and everybody knew it, that’s what separated him. His only goal was to win. People would come from all over to watch him pitch.”
And on Wednesday, once again, people from all over will be watching Verlander pitch on the biggest stage of all, in hopes that the third time will be the charm.
Contact Anthony Fenech: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech.