DETROIT — When Justin Verlander and Alex Avila retraced their steps in Mike Napoli’s at-bats, all the breadcrumbs led them back to the fastball.
“He was really late on his fastball most of the game,” Avila said.
Napoli wasn’t necessarily alone. Most of the game, the Sox had politely waved at whatever Verlander whizzed by them.
But Napoli was the friendliest, swinging and missing at six Verlander offerings and striking out twice.
“I felt like he hadn’t seen the fastball very well,” Verlander said.
As a chaser for the hard stuff, Verlander fed Napoli an occasional slider.
The cocktail had Napoli stumbling.
“Most of his at-bats today, what was working for us was the fastball-slider combination,” Avila said. “We were mixing some curveballs in there. It changed speeds.”
Avila and Verlander had a proven plan for against Napoli, and with Game 3 of the American League Championship Series still scoreless in the seventh, they figured they’d stick with it.
Verlander fed Napoli three straight to start off the at-bat, all up and away, and jumped ahead 1-and-2.
Then he sprinkled in the slider, both out of the zone, low and away.
With the count full, Napoli was set up perfectly for the fastball.
The fastball Verlander threw, however, was slightly imperfect.
“We were trying to go down and away with a fastball,” Avila said. “Three-two, we wanted to try to make a good pitch and it just ran back over the plate.”
On a day when he struck out 10 and held the Red Sox scoreless through 6⅓ innings, it was, Avila said, perhaps Verlander’s only mistake.
Napoli finally got a hold of Verlander’s heater and rocketed it to left center.
His home run was the only run Verlander and the Tigers allowed, but it was all the offense the Sox needed in their 1-0 win.
Coming off his Game 5 start in the ALDS clincher against Oakland, when he took a no-hitter into the seventh, Verlander was equally as dominant but was forced to swallow a bitter loss.
“Obviously it’s tough, but you want to win every time you take the mound,’’ he said. “Obviously, to give my team a chance to win today I would have had to throw up all zeroes and I wasn’t able to do that.’’
But in a series in which all three games have been decided by one run, Verlander knows how slim the margins are.
“I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating, I think you kind of expect that kind of pitching in this series,” Verlander said. “It’s just kind of the way it’s going to go. It’s going to be a battle for every single out, every single run. And it’s two heavyweights going at it, and if you can’t appreciate this, you can’t appreciate baseball. It’s been an amazing first three games.’’
Even though they outhit the Sox, 6-4, the Tigers couldn’t push across any runs on Sox starter John Lackey, who pitched 6⅔ innings, or three relievers. If Verlander wasn’t upset, his offense was for him.
“Everybody, the fans are frustrated, we’re frustrated, coaching staff, everybody’s frustrated that we couldn’t get any run support for JV after that pitching performance,’’ said outfielder Torii Hunter, who had two of the Tigers’ hits. “Lackey pitched a great job himself. Yeah, it’s frustrating, but we’re not going to dwell on it. We’ve got to have amnesia.”
It was especially hard to accept, knowing how locked in Verlander has been in the postseason. Napoli’s homer ended a streak of 34 scoreless innings, dating to Sept. 18, for Verlander.
“Verlander looks great,” Hunter said. “He’s pitching lights out. He’s pitching like the Verlander of old. The one that I know and hated to face. He’s been doing a great job. Unfortunately, today we just couldn’t get any runs for him.’’
As the game played out, Verlander seemed to get stronger. His fastball started out in the low 90s. In the fifth inning, he fanned Napoli with a heater that clocked in at 96 miles per hour.
“That’s nothing new,” Avila said. “That’s how he pitches. His fastball’s between 90 to 99. So it just depends on the situation, the count, whether it’s in or out or guys on base, things like that. That’s what he’s learned to do over his career is being able to pitch and not just throw.”
Much of the doubt around Verlander this year came because of his 13-12 record, but the Tigers have insisted that in many of those games he didn’t get enough support. Game 3 only furthered their argument.
“I don’t know if it’s so frustrating for him,” Avila said. “I think he’s so locked in to making sure he does his job because he knows if he does his job then that’s the best chance we’ve got for us to win. To me, it’s not something that frustrates him, it’s just he knows what his job is to do and our job is to score runs and today we didn’t.”
The outcome mattered more to Verlander than the thought of him returning to form. He said, “I think the results speak more than what I can say.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.