Justin Verlander: Dominating and determined

Tigers pitcher isn’t the rookie who faltered in Fall Classic in 2006

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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 of 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 past two seasons have been 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 two runs — a pair of harmless solo homers that did little to slow Detroit’s march to the American League pennant.

“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 effortless. Verlander often will 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 still was 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, and the Tigers would seem to have an advantage in Wednesday night’s opening game at San Francisco. Verlander is expected to face Barry Zito of the Giants.

Of course, 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.”

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