DETROIT, MI: Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers leaves the game in the ninth inning during the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. The Rays defeated the Tigers 4-2. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Wednesday afternoon, Justin Verlander was absolutely cruising against the Tampa Bay Rays. Then all of a sudden, he wasn't, and the Detroit Tigers lost their first game.
Justin Verlander is so hot right now. Roy Halladay? Whatever, nobody cares about Roy Halladay. People are over Roy Halladay. Dude's an automaton, and it isn't fair to compare humans to an automaton. But Justin Verlander? Now there's a starting pitcher you bring home to meet the family. Everybody's all about Justin Verlander.
Last season, of course, Verlander won not just the American League Cy Young award, but also the American League Most Valuable Player award. He went on to star in a few commercials. In his first start of the 2012 season, he picked up where he left off, allowing two hits in eight innings against the Red Sox. I would've included a mention of the runs had Verlander surrendered any runs.
Wednesday, Verlander got his second turn, at home against the Rays. The dominant sort, Verlander was up to his usual tricks. In our own little Baseball Nation editorial chat room, we had a no-hitter alert after four innings. Verlander finally allowed a single to Ben Zobrist with one out in the fifth. That was the only hit Verlander would allow through the first eight innings. He was at the very tippy-top of his game, and he was sent out in the ninth to protect a 2-0 lead.
Jim Leyland had reason to believe Verlander would seal the deal. Everybody had reason to believe. To give you an idea of how Verlander had been pitching, and how helpless he'd made the Rays look, here is a sample of in-game tweets:
If Justin Verlander keeps pitching like this, Bob Gibson is going to start being compared to him.#Tigers. He's making it look a video game— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) April 11, 2012
@DickieV Verlander is the best pitcher on the planet right now -- he's put it all together. Experience, power, command.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) April 11, 2012
The assumption was that Verlander's ninth inning would be as easy as his first eight innings, and that the Tigers would improve to 5-0. Here's Verlander's actual ninth inning:
-J Keppinger singles to center field
-R Brignac strikes out swinging
-D Jennings singles to right field, J Keppinger to third
-C Pena walks, wild pitch, J Keppinger scores, D Jennings to second
-E Longoria singles to left field, D Jennings scores, C Pena to second
The Rays' rally is being referred to as a stunner, or as a shocker, or as some synonym of the two. They got up from off the mat and knocked out Justin Verlander just when Verlander seemed poised to deliver the final blow. Suffice to say that the ninth inning was completely unanticipated.
But there's a lesson to be learned, here, or more like a lesson to be reinforced. There might be such thing as momentum in another sport, like basketball or hockey. If there's such thing as momentum in baseball, we can't spot it, and we can't predict with it. One would've figured that Justin Verlander had all the momentum in the world going into the ninth. He faced five batters in the ninth, and four of them reached. Verlander came undone.
It's not that Verlander got a lot worse, necessarily. He struck out Brignac with a 98 miles-per-hour fastball. Jennings singled on a 99 miles-per-hour fastball. Pena walked on a 100 miles-per-hour fastball. The stuff was there - Verlander wasn't tired. If he was tired, he wasn't showing it, and he was removed having thrown 104 pitches.
But here's momentum in baseball. Verlander faced Evan Longoria with two on and one out. The 1-and-1 pitch:
A slightly missed spot. A groundball that eludes a third baseman. That's how the Rays tied the Tigers. Had things gone one eensy-teensy bit differently, that could've been how the Rays lost to the Tigers. But that was a single, and then later there was another single, and the Rays handed the Tigers their first loss of the season.
The thing about momentum in sports, the way I picture it, is that the team with momentum is charging, and the team without momentum is back on its heels. But there's so much of baseball that's out of the players' control. A pitcher can allow zero runs in one inning, and then throw the exact same pitches and allow some runs the next inning. Tiny things can make a huge difference, with a consequence being that momentum effectively means squat.
Justin Verlander was in a groove for eight innings. He might well have been in a groove in the ninth. The Rays still scored against him, because that's what happens in baseball. It's also entirely possible that Verlander wasn't in a groove in the ninth, for some reason. Maybe he lost something in the bottom of the eighth. There are plenty of possibilities.
The point is: Momentum might be a thing in baseball, but it isn't a meaningful thing, or a predictive thing. Justin Verlander and the Tigers figured that out today. Momentum isn't the next day's starting pitcher. Momentum is the very next pitch, or the very next plate appearance. If there is momentum, momentum is fleeting, such that we probably shouldn't pay momentum any mind at all.