Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Justin Verlander is no longer the pitcher he was. He's no longer dominant. Max Scherzer is now the ace of the Detroit Tigers.
Verlander has heard it all this season, and rightfully so.
The former American League Cy Young Award and MVP winner endured arguably the worst season of his career, as he was 13-12 and finished the year with his highest ERA (3.46), lowest strikeout rate (23.5 percent) and lowest innings total (218 1/3) since 2008 and battled through reduced velocity.
In fact, by his own admission, he struggled to find himself all year.
But on Thursday, Verlander can put a season's worth of frustration behind him, as he takes the ball for the Tigers in the decisive fifth game of the American League Division Series against the Oakland Athletics.
"It's not just another game," Verlander said. "The season is on the line. The whole season, the way we battled and played as a team, comes down to one game. May the best team win. You can't treat it like another game, you know. It's a little bit different. There is more to it. It's going to be fun. It's what you play the game for. It's exciting. This is what you dream of as a kid, to be on the mound in a clinching game."
If it seems like we've been here before, well, we have. Verlander, of course, was in this exact same position last year and struck out 11 A's in a shutout to move the Tigers forward. He was equally as dominant against Oakland in Game 2 on Saturday, as he again fanned 11 and allowed just four hits over seven scoreless innings in his team's 1-0 loss.
But, as marvelous as Verlander was in that game and despite his remarkable resume, Tigers manager Jim Leyland had intended to go with Scherzer should there be a Game 5.
It was almost a win-win for Leyland. On the one hand you have Verlander and the other you have Scherzer, who is the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award this season after winning an MLB-best 21 games and pitching to a league-low 0.970 WHIP.
But Leyland had to call on Scherzer out of the bullpen in Game 4, leaving Verlander as the go-to-guy in the winner-take-all showdown on Thursday.
"We used a 21-game winner out of the bullpen and now we can pitch a Cy Young winner in his place," marveled Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson. "How many teams could do that?"
You can probably make the argument that the Tigers are better off to be in the position they are. As good as Scherzer was this year, Verlander is still Verlander, especially with the way he's pitched of late.
Verlander was, of course, magnificent in Game 2, but he had shown signs leading up to that start of being the shutdown pitcher he has been throughout his career, as he pitched to a 2.27 ERA over his final six starts of the regular season.
"I think it's just some of the adjustments I made, one of the maybe a thousand that I tried to make this year," he said. "It was definitely a grind all year. Then it reached a point where I realized it was going to take awhile, that it wasn't going to be one thing I had to fix."
Verlander, though, doesn't even get a chance at this game had it not been for Scherzer. The hard-throwing righty came on in relief of Doug Fister in the seventh inning on Tuesday and promptly allowed the A's to take a one-run lead.
The Tigers responded with two runs in their half of the seventh, but Scherzer appeared ready to give it right back, as he loaded the bases in the eighth before recording an out.
"I've seen him fired up," catcher Alex Avila said. "That's why I gave him that nickname, 'Mad Max.' It's when he goes to an enthusiasm level when he needs it -- and the situation called for it."
Scherzer then showed why he was the best pitcher in the AL this season, as he bore down and struck out both Josh Reddick and Stephen Vogt, then ran a full count against Alberto Callaspo before getting the pinch-hitter on a line drive to center field to end the threat.
"To be able to get out of that jam, I mean, that's something I'll never forget," Scherzer said. "That's something I'm not really asked to do, and tonight I was."
The Tigers tacked on three runs after that and escaped with an 8-6 win to force the fifth game.
And with that, fate turned to Verlander.
Not all that bad of a scenario if you root for the Tigers.