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Verlander once again struggles in World Series

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Verlander once again struggles in World Series

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Those postseason struggles that plagued Justin Verlander his first two trips to the postseason looked to be a thing of the past this year.

That all changed when he ran into Pablo Sandoval and the San Francisco Giants.

Verlander allowed two of Sandoval's record-tying three home runs, an RBI single to fellow pitcher Barry Zito and failed to make it past the fourth inning in the Detroit Tigers' 8-3 loss to the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night.

``This was a big-hyped game with Justin, probably a lot of pressure on him,'' manager Jim Leyland said. ``But I don't think it had anything to do with the pressure. His fastball command was not good, he got out of synch, he got on fast forward. He just did not pitch well tonight, it's that simple.''

Pitching for the first time in more than a week because the Tigers swept the New York Yankees in the AL championship series, Verlander never found his groove against Sandoval and the Giants.

He said he struggled to keep his fastball from tailing back over the plate, which proved to be his biggest problem.

``I know I was a little bit out of synch,'' Verlander said. ``Whether that was the layoff or just being out of synch, you can't expect to be perfect every time out.''

With two no-hitters, a Cy Young Award and an MVP to his credit, Verlander has been nearly perfect the past two seasons.

But all that success built on a fastball that hits triple digits on the radar gun and a devastating curveball and changeup hasn't translated on the big stage of the World Series.

Verlander struggled in two starts as a rookie against St. Louis in 2006 and was even worse against the Giants this time, falling to 0-3 with a 5.14 ERA in the Fall Classic.

``You could tell that his command wasn't there as far as his fastball,'' catcher Alex Avila said. ``From then on you try to make the adjustments for him to find it and still try to manage it and work with what he had. He relies so much on his fastball that when he can't command it it's tough for him.''

Verlander retired the first two batters and got ahead 0-2 to Sandoval before Kung Fu Panda drove a 95 mph fastball over the wall in right-center to give the Giants the lead. That was just the sixth homer Verlander had ever allowed on an 0-2 pitch, including in last year's ALCS to Nelson Cruz.

``I tried to elevate there and didn't get it high enough,'' Verlander said. ``Obviously I didn't quite know he was that locked in at that point, but he was seeing the ball pretty well today.''

After a 1-2-3 second, Verlander fell off the rails with two outs and nobody on in the third as he struggled to stop his usually dominating fastball from drifting back to the middle of the plate.

The rally started innocently enough when Angel Pagan fouled off three two-strike pitches before hitting a bouncer that hit directly on third base and changed directions, veering past Miguel Cabrera for a quirky double.

NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro fouled off a pair of 98 mph fastballs with two strikes before lining an RBI single up the middle to give the Giants a 2-0 lead.

With a 2-0 count on Sandoval, Jeff Jones came out to the mound and Verlander appeared surprised to see his pitching coach making a visit so early in the game.

``I wasn't mad he was coming out,'' Verlander said. ``It was 2-0. It was not like the wheels were falling off. I'm someone who likes to work off a rhythm. I usually know what I'm doing out there. When things are going wrong, I still know what I'm doing wrong.''

Whatever advice was imparted didn't work as Sandoval drove the next pitch over the left-field fence to make it 4-0, leaving Verlander to mouth ``Wow!'' as he watched it.

``I've seen enough balls off the bat to know when someone gets one,'' Verlander said. ``I definitely didn't think that was a homer off the bat. I turned around and saw Delmon (Young) standing at the wall. That's kind of where the `wow' came from because it was totally unexpected.''

Sandoval became just the fifth player ever to hit two homers in a game off Verlander, who will need to change something before his next start since Sandoval also hit a bases-loaded triple in this year's All-Star game, the only other time they faced each other.

Zito's two-out RBI single in the fourth inning provided a fitting capper to a rough night for Verlander, who had been dominant to get the Tigers to the World Series.

Verlander overpowered the opposition in the first two rounds of the postseason, going 3-0 with an 0.74 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 24 1-3 innings against the big-swinging Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees.

While those teams were strikeout prone, the Giants built their success on putting the ball into play. San Francisco combined that skill with Sandoval's homers to lead to Verlander's shortest outing since also lasting four innings in Game 1 of the ALCS against Texas last year.

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Five observations from Wizards' 117-109 win over the Orlando Magic, including Jeff Green's takeover

Five observations from Wizards' 117-109 win over the Orlando Magic, including Jeff Green's takeover

The Washington Wizards beat the Orlando Magic 117-109 on Monday night. Here are five observations from the game...

Two in a row: The Wizards did something on Monday night they had yet to do this season. They won their second game in a row.

Now 4-9 on the season, the Wizards have some work remaining to regain respectability. But there were some encouraging signs. For instance, they won the rebounding margin for just the second time this season. They also made 13 threes.

This win, however, would have been a lot easier if they could lock down the three-point line. The Magic shot 15-for-30 from three. Perimeter defense continues to be a major blindspot for Washington.

Green dominated: Bradley Beal's comparison of Jeff Green to LeBron James all of a sudden doesn't sound so crazy.

Against the Magic, Green wasn't just good, he put the Wizards on his back and took over the game in the fourth quarter with a series of shots and defensive plays to keep Orlando at bay.

Green, who finished with 18 points in just 21 minutes, erupted for 10 points in the fourth quarter. He hit two threes in the frame and went 4-for-5 for the night. One of them bailed out Austin Rivers to beat the shot clock.

Green also had 19 points against the Heat on Friday. The veteran is playing well beyond expectations for the one-year contract he signed this summer. In the Wizards' past several games, he's given them starter production off the bench. 

Though Mike Scott was very good last season, Green is showing how he can do more because of how he can affect games defensively. It's no wonder why head coach Scott Brooks has relied on him in the fourth quarters of the last three games instead of starters.

Beal woke up late: With under five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Beal was ice cold. He had nine points on 3-for-13 shooting from the field and 0-for-6 from three.

But out of a timeout, Beal woke up and, like a button was pushed, took over the game. He began by sinking a tough layup off the glass. Moments later, he got his first three to fall. 

After that, he fed Dwight Howard for an and-1 on a drive set up by a slick behind-the-back move. And seconds later, he stole an errant pass and finished with a rim-bending slam on the other end.

Beal scored seven points in a stretch of about three minutes and almost singlehandedly erased what was a 10-point deficit to take the lead. He did what we saw him do so often last year. Despite struggling for more than half the game, he never wavered and found a way to get the ball in the rim.

Beal made something of his uneven night to post 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists. He proved once again that opposing teams can only keep him in check for so long.

Wall is heating up: Though John Wall has long been criticized for his outside shot, many forget he set a career-high last season by shooting 37.1 percent from three on 4.1 attempts per game. That wasn't bad at all and it looks like Wall may be finding that stroke once again.

After a slow start out of the gate, Wall has been on fire from three recently. He went 2-for-3 against the Magic and is now 16-for-37 in his last seven games. That's good for 43.2 percent.

Wall may never be a lights-out marksman from long range. But he is becoming more than respectable as a perimeter threat.

Mahinmi played again: It appears that Ian Mahinmi has earned his job back. He was benched for three straight games, but has now played in each of the past two. 

Similar to the win over the Heat on Friday, Mahinmi did his part with a minimal, but noticeable impact on the game. He had a nice weakside block in the first quarter. Jarell Martin drove left and got by his man and Mahinmi helped by stepping across the lane to swat it out of bounds.

That's what they need Mahinmi to do, play defense and not get in the way on offense. When he's not affecting games on the defensive end, his other shortcomings become magnified. Through two games, he's done enough to probably stay in the rotation for the time being.

While Mahinmi is back in the rotation, Otto Porter Jr. appears to be in the relative doghouse. This was the third straight game he has sat out the fourth quarter. Markieff Morris was in the same boat for two games, but got the nod against Orlando.

Some of it is simply Brooks rolling with the hot hand. But Brooks must not like something Porter has been doing lately. The best guess is his defense, as Jonathan Simmons, among others, was getting past Porter with regularity in this one.

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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