Verlander, at only 24, achieving greatness

Originally Published: June 12, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Baseball news travels quickly in this age of cell phones and text messaging. J.J. Hardy's lazy fly ball had barely settled into Magglio Ordonez's glove late Tuesday night when word of Justin Verlander's no-hit, 12-strikeout masterpiece against Milwaukee began trickling into press boxes and scouts sections at ballparks across America.

Every no-hitter requires a degree of luck and fate, the planets aligning properly. A bad bounce here or a poor decision there can be enough to separate a pitcher from his place in history and, "Sorry, not today."

Boston's Curt Schilling learned that firsthand last week when he shook off catcher Jason Varitek's call for a slider and opted for the fastball against Oakland's Shannon Stewart. One line-drive single later, Schilling was left with 8 2/3 no-hit innings and a genuine sense of regret.

Still, there's a different feel when, say, Florida's Anibal Sanchez comes out of nowhere to pitch a no-hitter and when a blue-chipper such as Verlander seals the deal. When Verlander, Roy Oswalt or Johan Santana take their prime stuff from the bullpen to the mound, they create a buzz akin to what Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson or Nolan Ryan elicited in their prime.

Not to say that Verlander is a Hall of Fame lock at 24. But when your fastball hits triple digits and your curveball and changeup overwhelm hitters in a way radar guns can't measure, every start has the potential to make big news. No one, with the exception of opposing hitters, understands that better than the men who evaluate baseball talent for a living.

"You're looking at a guy who's a No. 1-type starter for any club in baseball," said an American League scout. "Most big league pitchers, if they really bring their A-game for 25 to 35 percent of their starts the whole year, that's pretty good. When Verlander brings his A-game, it separates him from everybody else."

This particular night, Verlander's A-game produced the first no-hitter by a Tiger since Jack Morris' in 1984, and the first by a Detroit pitcher at home since Virgil "Fire" Trucks beat the Washington Senators 1-0 in May 1952. Three months later, Trucks no-hit New York at Yankee Stadium.

Justin Verlander
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonVerlander finished in commanding fashion, his velocity still around 100 mph in the late innings.
When the ninth inning rolled around Tuesday, there was barely time for suspense. After Craig Counsell nearly wrenched his back swinging at a breaking ball and Tony Graffanino looked downright helpless in striking out for the fourth time, poor Hardy stepped into the box with the sound of 33,555 rabid Tigers fans ringing in his ears.

As the TV cameras showed franchise icon Al Kaline applauding from a box upstairs, Verlander threw a fastball that registered 101 mph. Under the circumstances, Hardy did an admirable job simply putting the ball in play.

The word "special" is overused in sports these days, but Verlander, health permitting, is on his way to doing some incredible things. He went 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA last year to beat out Jered Weaver, Francisco Liriano and Jonathan Papelbon for American League Rookie of the Year. This season, he's 7-2 with a 2.79 ERA, sixth best in the AL.

Verlander's intangibles, from poise to work ethic, are universally described as off the charts. Last October, after the Tigers dropped the division series opener to New York at Yankee Stadium, Verlander combined with three relievers for a 4-3 victory to begin Detroit's big postseason roll.

In a remarkably prescient story Tuesday, Danny Knobler of Booth Newspapers talked to two scouts who expressed the belief that Verlander might strike out 20 batters in a game one day. One of the scouts described Verlander's curveball as a Bert Blyleven-caliber bender, "only 10 miles an hour faster."

This is precisely what the Tigers hoped for when they signed Verlander to a $3.12 million bonus out of Old Dominion University in 2004. Verlander went second in the draft after the San Diego Padres selected high school shortstop Matt Bush first overall in a monument to shortsightedness based upon "signability."

The Tigers got a potential Cy Young Award winner; Bush failed to hit a lick in the minors and is being converted to a pitcher. Can you imagine how Verlander might look in that San Diego rotation with Jake Peavy?

When Verlander was working his way through the minor leagues, one Detroit executive said he had a chance to be better than the Cubs' Mark Prior -- then the gold standard of pitching prospects. Now, Verlander is so good that he's the one generating comparisons.

Last week, Detroit used the 27th pick in the draft on Rick Porcello, a New Jersey high school pitcher who would have gone considerably higher if he weren't represented by agent Scott Boras. Porcello throws in the mid-90s and has been called a younger version of Josh Beckett and Verlander.

"I've watched Justin Verlander for a couple years now, and it's an honor just to be mentioned in the same sentence as him," Porcello said on draft day.

Just think how the kid must must feel now.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer