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Justin Verlander: Mr. September has 'that look' again

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You can call him a "former" ace all you want, but Justin Verlander is again showing that when the lights shine the brightest, so does he.

Ed Zurga

He's doing it again.

Justin Verlander is making September his own. The switch has been flipped.

The temps get a tad cooler, the nights get crisper, the days get shorter. And Verlander gets hotter.

September is Verlander's month now. It's as if he revels in taking the cloak of April-August off, months that for two years in a row he's worn like an albatross around his neck.

The games rise in importance in September and Verlander rises with them. This is two years in a row where the first 25 starts of the season have turned out to be merely test drives around the track. The calendar flips to the year's ninth month and Verlander steps on the gas.

They said his fastball was gone. They said he had lost command. They said his off-season core muscle surgery was still bedeviling him. They still called him an ace, but they used the word "former" before it.

They said he should be moved to the bullpen in the playoffs.

That was between April and August.

They said much of the same about Verlander in 2013, when he meandered through the regular season like Mr. Magoo without his glasses, trying to feel his way back to prominence.

That, too, was between April and August.

"What's wrong with Justin Verlander?" was the $64,000 question being bandied about throughout Motown in the summer of 2013 as his dominance appeared to wane.

There was a tweak here, a mechanical adjustment there, yet he never could quite get back to the Verlander who used to come to the ballpark every night with no-hitter stuff - the pitcher who terrorized hitters to the point of winning the Cy Young and MVP Awards in 2011.

But then September came last year and Verlander summoned his lights out stuff. It's unknown from where he produced it, but it arrived just in time, as the Tigers staved off the Cleveland Indians, who were charging hard for the Central Division title.

Verlander made six starts in September, 2013, encompassing 39.2 innings. His ERA was 2.27. In three of those starts he didn't allow a single run, including his last two before the season ended.

The calendar, and the switch, had flipped. It was big boy baseball time. Verlander's time.

Verlander's resurgence continued into October, when he threw 15 innings of shutout baseball at the Oakland A's in the ALDS. He threw one game in the ALCS, going eight innings and surrendering just one run - a Mike Napoli homer that beat the Tigers in Game 3, 1-0.

The big boy pitchers rise to the occasion and that's what Verlander did when it mattered most last year.

In his final five starts - the last two in September and the three in the playoffs - Verlander smoked 35 innings at the opposition and gave up one run. One.

That's an ERA of 0.26 when the spotlights got hotter. In each of those five starts Verlander recorded double digits in strikeouts for a total of 53 punch outs and a K/9 rate of 13.6.

He's doing it again in 2014.

This season has been even more stressful than last year's. Verlander's ERA has been closer to 5.00 than 4.00 for much of the summer. He has often been pedestrian, sometimes simply awful. Many of the starts have been cringe-inducing.

But he's doing it again.

It's September and it's Verlander's month. He has "that look." He's gone into bulldog mode.

Last Friday, the Tigers visited Kansas City to begin what was billed to the locals as the biggest series the Royals have played in nearly 30 years. The billing was correct. The Royals were just a half-game behind the Tigers in the Central Division. The playoffs beckoned, seriously, for the first time since 1985.

Verlander got the start in Game 1 on Friday.

The Royals never had a chance.

Don't kid yourself. Just because the Tigers scored 10 runs that night by the fifth inning, it shouldn't diminish what Verlander did, which was making sure the Royals didn't sniff any hope.

The 31-year-old Virginian spun 7.1 innings at the Royals, giving up just a single run and scattering seven mostly harmless hits. Even manager Brad Ausmus said later that before the game, he could tell that Verlander was locked in, by way of his pitcher's demeanor and look.

The game was big and so Verlander got big with it.

On Wednesday, Verlander went up against White Sox ace Chris Sale. Again the game was big, because the Royals were still nipping at the Tigers' heels, just one game behind.

The afternoon had some playoff-like drama to it, especially after Sale hit Victor Martinez with a pitch and binoculargate ensued.

Verlander cut through all the nonsense and made mincemeat of the White Sox. He went eight innings, gave up just one run and again scattered seven hits. As in the start against the Royals last Friday, Verlander didn't walk anyone.

The Tigers won 6-1, extending their lead in the Central to two games over the Royals, who lost to the Cleveland Indians later that night.

The season's ERA is still bloated at 4.54, but Verlander has given up just two runs in his last 15.1 innings of work.

That's why I wrote in early-August that any thoughts of Verlander being moved to the bullpen for the playoffs were stark raving mad.

You don't do that to a guy who has constantly risen to the occasion with his best work, more often than not on the road. You don't take the ball away from him before you find out whether he's still got it or not.

It's September and the Tigers are again beating back the surge of a lesser opponent for the division crown. It shouldn't be that way but here we are.

It's September and the games are magnified in their importance. We hang on every pitch. Judging from Twitter, the fans are already spent and the playoffs haven't even started. That's what this schizophrenic Tigers team has done to its supporters.

But it's turning out that three things are certain - death, taxes, and Justin Verlander pitching big when the games are the biggest.

He may not have the 98-100 MPH fastball anymore, but he has guile and moxie. And he still has that nasty curveball.

By the way, did you see what Felix Hernandez, Cy Young candidate, did in Toronto on Tuesday in arguably the biggest start of his career?

Let's just say that King Felix is no Verlander when the chips are down.

I don't care what the ERA says.