Danville, Kentucky -- Time: its passage is as inexorable as it is cruel. With each tick of the clock, time passes like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow, like Chile con queso slips between a man's fingers if he's bold enough to thrust a hand into the skillet and lay claim to the cheesy goodness for himself. Time passes, but memories of simpler times and younger days do not.
Memory can be a refuge of comfort, nostalgia, and consolation, but memory can also pierce, sear, and sting like a hot needle in an amateur do-it-yourself ear piercing operation. Baseball is a game of memory. The game honors its golden-era forebears, and judges each new generation of players using these heroes as a benchmark.
For Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers, their season-opener vs. the Miami Marlins will arouse a variety of memories --- mostly negative. Justin Verlander will face Wei-Yin Chen, Taiwan's finest son. This game is not considered a marquee match-up in 2016, a year of statistical inundation and sabermetric besiegement. Yet, for Verlander, this is the match-up of a lifetime.
October 3rd, 2014. Game 2 of the American League Divisional Series between the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers. A cold and salty Autumn breeze was blowing in from the nearby harbor. With Max Scherzer having failed to silence the bombastic Orioles offense the night before, Mr. Verlander was tasked with playing stopper. His opponent was Baltimore's Taiwanese lefty, Wei-Yin Chen. A game 2 win would tie the series and give the Tigers a chance to take a series lead on their home-field with David Price on the mound. In years past, Justin had been the man to single-handedly keep the Tigers' playoff hopes alive. He put the team on his back and delivered wins in games 1 and 5 of the 2012 ALDS and game 3 of the 2012 ALCS. In 2013 he once again delivered a game 5 win in the ALDS, while allowing 1 run the entire postseason.
In game 2 of the 2014 ALDS, that Verlander was nowhere to be found. Justin, the man who only a postseason ago was a complete game-throwing strikeout machine, went 5 innings --- putting the game in the hands of a bullpen less trustworthy than Megyn Kelly. The results were predictable. Though the voracious right-handed slugging Tigers lineup had pounded Wei-Yin Chen like mainland China might one day decimate Wei-Yin's native Taiwan in a hypothetical cross-Strait war, Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria's entry into the game was rightfully greeted with cheers from the Baltimore audience as they conspired to squander a winnable game. The Orioles took a 2-0 lead in the series before winning game 3 in Detroit to complete the sweep. The Detroit Tigers have not played playoff baseball since.
Tomorrow's Tigers-Marlins match-up is not considered particularly sexy by the fangraphs crowd. Both teams project to be middle-of-the-pack in their respective divisions, if you are foolish enough to believe projections. Other opening day showdowns have more compelling story-lines; take the re-match between the World Champion Kansas City Royals™ and the runner-up New York Mets, for instance. I planned to write a preview of last night's Matt Harvey v. Edinson Volquez face-off, but I've been in a spiraling haze of depressive alcoholism for the past few days as polling data shows Ted Cruz leads Donald Trump in Wisconsin.
Casual baseball fans could be forgiven for not caring about this Tigers-Marlins match-up. But for Justin Verlander, this game means the world. Longing for redemption, he has a chance to help the team get off to a good start as the Tigers take on the Marlins in Miami. To do so, he'll have to do what he couldn't do in 2014: beat Wei-Yin Chen, ex-Oriole and key free agent signing by Miami. Justin, restored to his rightful role as opening day starter after temporarily yielding the position to Max Scherzer in 2014 and David Price in 2015, knows what must be done. A time will come for reflection on his disappointing 2014 and quiet, unheralded brilliance down the stretch in 2015, but it is not this day. On this opening day, Justin will take the mound with a steely eyed-determination. Metrics don't respect the Marlins, but Justin will. Giancarlo Stanton is the baseball equivalent of a B-52 bomber. Dee Gordon and Ichiro are better at slap-hitting than my ex-wives. Opening day will be a test, but Justin is ready for it.
After his opening day start, Justin Verlander will take the most well-known Upton in the Tigers organization out to a secluded spot on the beach and sip a tropical beverage adorned with a colorful little umbrella. As he gazes wistfully at the Atlantic Ocean, illuminated by the mingling orange, pink, and golden hues of the Miami sunset, Justin will accept that he cannot undo the failures of 2014 and 2015.
|the sun sets in Miami, but not upon Verlander.|
Time passes and players come and go, but Justin draws strength from his status as the immovable pillar of the Tigers' franchise since debuting with the team in 2006. The script for 2016 is largely the same as 2015, albeit with some new cast-members like Jordan Zimmerman, Justin Upton, and Mike Pelfrey. Justin, Detroit's Once and Future Ace, has to find a way to defy time and deliver his team to the October Classic. Justin is not a man who excels in a Best Supporting Actor role, playing sidekick to Scherzer or Price. He is a man who relishes the spotlight and all its attendant pressures and expectations. Justin has restored himself as Detroit's unquestioned leader. He must now restore baseball in Detroit.