SAN FRANCISCO – 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.