DETROIT -- The penalty of putting together a 24-win, 250-strikeout, 2.40 ERA, Cy Young, MVP season -- which Justin Verlander did in 2011 -- is the impossibly high bar it sets going forward.
After going 13-12 this year (his worst record since 2008), with a 3.46 ERA (his highest since 2009), and 217 strikeouts (his fewest since 2008), Verlander has had to answer time and again what's happened to him.
His response is sarcastic but also straightforward.
"We're not robots, we're athletes," Verlander said going into his ALCS Game 3 start against the Red Sox. "You can't just say you're going to go out and be perfect, everything is going to be right where you want every time. That's just the nature of this game, and specifically this game. Guys have up and down seasons.
"You can't just rely on athletic ability or whatever it may be. There's a lot of fine-tuned things that go into mechanics, not just pitching, hitting as well. You look at the back of Hall of Famers and bubble gum cards, there's seasons that are down. It's just kind of the way this game is. It was a grind for me all year."
During the regular season, Verlander said he was constantly trying to work out bugs in his delivery. In the final month, things began to click. He put in quality starts in five of his last six outings.
Things came together just as the postseason came around. In the playoffs, he has pitched 15 straight scoreless innings. His 10 strikeouts in the Tigers' clinching Game 5 Division Series win over Oakland marked the fifth time he had double-digit strikeouts in a postseason game, the most in Tigers history.
"I could probably sit here and name 50 adjustments that I tried to make that didn't quite work or did help," he said. "Who knows what helped along the way and what didn't? But I really felt like the last month of the season I started to kind of get it to click.
"With all the adjustments I've been making, when I'm out on the mound, I've still got those in my head a little bit. I try to shove them in the back of your mind -- you want to forget them and pitch.
"When I know things aren't right and I'm trying to get them right -- let's do this, let's do that -- I found the only thing is execution. I feel like my mechanics are where they need to be and I need to execute. Just forget about all that and just make my pitch."
The Red Sox have given Verlander a hard time over his career. Verlander is 3-4 with a 3.63 ERA all-time against the Sox, and David Ortiz is hitting .370 lifetime against him with two home runs. In his only start against the Sox this season back in June, Verlander gave up four runs on seven hits and didn't get the decision in the Tigers' 7-5 win.
He threw 112 pitches in those five innings. As transparent as the Red Sox are about wanting to drive up pitch counts, Verlander said he wants to continue to be aggressive.
"Obviously, most of the veteran lineups in baseball are guys that have professional at-bats and tend to extend pitch counts and do all the little things that they can to get the starting pitcher out of the game," Verlander said. "I think the only way you combat that is be aggressive, throw a lot of strikes, and pound the zone."