OK, so I have a new JoePhrase. I call it a "Marilyn Munster." Do you remember how in The Munsters, everyone thought Marilyn was drab or plain looking, even though she was gorgeous, because she didn't look like the rest of the Munster family? Marilyn, of course, was cast to look like Marilyn Monroe, and Beverly Owen -- later Pat Priest -- mostly pulled it off. But, the joke was that in this environment, looking like Marilyn Monroe makes someone hideous. The joke never got old.
And so, I nominate the phrase "Marilyn Munster" as a fact that seems blindingly obvious to you but it sure feels like everyone else in the entire world sees it exactly the other way.
My Marilyn Munster this postseason is Justin Verlander. I know that writing these words will confirm to many that I despise Verlander, that I'm out to get him, that I've always been out to get him, that I will stop at nothing in my plan to discredit the player and the man. I can't help it. Thursday night it happened again. I woke up this morning to this headline:
"Justin Verlander Delivers Superhuman Effort in Game 5 of ALCS."
That's Fox Sports. Superhuman. And this one from Detroit Free Press.
"Tigers Fans Knew Justin Verlander Did All He Could."
All he could. The Detroit News?
"Justin Verlander, Tigers Show True Grit."
Justin Verlander threw 133 pitches -- the most he has ever thrown in a game -- and, quite remarkably, the last one was clocked at 100 mph. That was, in fact, superhuman. Unfortunately, the last one was also thrown with one out in the eighth inning and it was smacked for a two-run homer. That meant that Verlander allowed four runs in 7 1/3 innings.
He wasn't himself. I really thought that was obvious. I've thought it's been obvious the whole postseason. His ERA this postseason is 5.31. His 25-to-10 strikeout to walk is way down from the season. His WHIP for his wonderful 2011 season was .920 -- an amazing thing, less than a walk/hit per inning. For the postseason it's about 1.4. He has had two of his starts interrupted by rain, which is a shame, but he wasn't especially pitching well in either of those starts (he allowed a run in one inning in New York, allowed three runs in four innings the other time out). In his other two starts, he pitched 8 innings and 7 1/3 innings and allowed four runs. In the history of the postseason, starters who allow exactly four runs are 53-247 -- and about half of those wins are pitchers who threw complete games. Two of the other 29 wins, though, are Justin Verlander's.
Was Verlander gritty on Thursday? I guess as times goes on, I'm beginning to lose contact with what that word means. He gave up eight hits -- five of them extra base hits. He almost gave up a three-run homer to Adrian Beltre -- the ball sliced just foul. He also walked three, threw a wild pitch and seemed high in the strike zone all day. He came out to start the eighth inning, which I suppose fits the term gritty since he'd already thrown a ridiculous number of pitches. But he only managed one out in the inning, and he gave up that last pitch home run.
At one point I heard one of the announcers say he was pitching without his best stuff. And, within five minutes, the same announcer talked about how he threw a pitch 101 mph.
And this is what drives me nuts about Verlander. It isn't about him. It's about me. Am I just not seeing it? Is everyone else right about Marilyn Munster? Am I going cynical and cold … turning into exactly the sort of sportswriter I never wanted to become? When a Brilliant Reader warned me to get ready for more Verlander Is Awesomeness Personified narrative, I posted Verlander's postseason 5.31 ERA on Twitter (Lord knows, Fox didn't mention it) and one of my favorites in the business, the New York Times Tyler Kepner, countered with this:
"True but you've gotta consider the circumstances. Thin bullpen today. LDS Game 3 and this game, allowed 2 runs late w/big lead."
Um, OK, one at a time. Thin bullpen today? Is this what Justin Verlander has become? A bullpen saver? The guy might be the league MVP. Joe Buck continuously calls him "the best pitcher in the world," as if that's his official title. He was pitching on full rest, at home, in a must-win game. I would think the thin bullpen would be the last thing on anyone's mind. He's Justin Bleepin' Verlander. The Tigers shouldn't even NEED a bullpen.
As for the big lead thing, well, in Game 3 of the League Division Series, he gave up two runs in the seventh inning to TIE THE GAME. That's not exactly a big lead. As for Thursday night, it's true, the Tigers did have a five-run lead when he gave up those final two runs. But this gets to that pitching-to-the-score nonsense that people go to whenever they've run out of points they can prove. And those final two runs allowed were hardly irrelevant. That cut the margin to three, and the Rangers actually sent the winning run to the plate in the ninth inning. Giving up runs, any time, is not a good thing for a pitcher.
So now you ask what unreasonable thing I want from Justin Verlander? I want him to throw a shutout. I want him to throw eight innings, give up two hits and one run and strike out 14. I want him to pitch the way Chris Carpenter pitched with the series on the line, or for that matter the way Roy Halladay pitched. I want him to dominate, the way he dominated much of the season, the way he's capable of dominating. I'm ready to celebrate him, I really am. If he comes into the seventh game of this series, and throws three overpowering shutout innings and sends the Tigers to the World Series, I PROMISE I will write a Justin Verlander is awesome post. If the Tigers go to the World Series and he throws a shutout or pitches some kind of amazing game, I PROMISE I will write a Justin Verlander is awesome post. I'm ready to do it. I'd LOVE to do it.
In the meantime, can everyone else just admit that Verlander has been kind of ordinary so far in this postseason -- as ordinary as a thrilling pitcher with a 100-mph fastball and ridiculously great secondary pitches can be -- and not turn unremarkable efforts into moon landings?* Please? I just want to believe I'm not going crazy.
*Which reminds me: In the National League Championship Series, with the score tied 2-2, Milwaukee Mark Kotsay hit a ground ball to the right side, which moved Nyjer Morgan from second to third with only one out. This is the sort of hitting that inside baseball people LOVE. Give yourself up for the sake of the team. Sacrifice your batting average for the greater good. All that. And, believe it or not, I'm actually good with that. I mean, right, I think productive outs are wildly overrated as run creators, but I do think they're good for team togetherness. Everybody likes them, a player who makes an out gets all sorts of high-fives, it's a cool part of baseball. Kotsay got the appropriate kudos from his teammates for his benevolent out, and he could feel he played a small role in things when Ryan Braun followed with an RBI single that gave the Brewers the lead.
In reality, I suspect Kotsay's actual role in the run was VERY small. Morgan would have scored from second on Braun's single -- I'm about 98.3% sure of that. But that's OK. It doesn't really matter who gets the credit in such things.
EXCEPT, a few innings later the TV announcers were talking about such things -- and they decided that Kotsay was the hero of the story. Right. They were STILL talking about it. I don't know exactly how long they celebrated Kotsay's ground ball, but I would estimate it was roughly 493 minutes. If you were just trying to learn baseball, you would honestly believe that games are won and lost by making outs to the right side of the infield. And I think that's because there are many people who desperately want that to be true, who desperately want to believe that you do win baseball games -- not by scoring and preventing runs -- but by sacrificing yourself for the greater good, by playing your small role that no one will notice, by doing things that don't show up in the box score.
Trouble is: That's really not baseball. No. The best performances in baseball, alas, almost without exception do show up in the box score. Three outs, productive or not, end innings. If you want a sport where many of the best players sacrifice themselves for the greater good and do so without being noticed, yeah, you might want to turn to football. It's really true there.