HOUSTON – Excited? Sure, Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire was excited.
But only to a point: He has sat in the opposing dugout far too many times, watching Justin Verlander mow down his Minnesota Twins teams of yesteryear and Tigers teams of the past two years to be too excited for the ace right-hander’s latest start against his team.
But this time, unlike the previous three times Verlander faced the Tigers, the team he made his household name with, an added bonus: At long last, Verlander faced the Tigers’ franchise player, Miguel Cabrera, who started at designated hitter and hit third on Wednesday night.
“I mean, I don’t think too many people want to be that excited for facing him,” Gardenhire said. “I think for nostalgia, like you. … You’re really looking forward to it.”
LIVE UPDATES: Tigers vs. Astros, Verlander at Minute Maid Park
BY THE NUMBERS: Astros historic favorites for Verlander’s start vs. Tigers
For however past his prime Cabrera may be, with his bum right knee recently forcing him to abandon the stride in his swing, he remains a feared hitter in the batter’s box and counts as perhaps the best hitter of this generation.
And for however Verlander may be defying Father Time, pitching better this season at age 36 than in any season since winning the American League MVP Award and Cy Young Award in 2011, the fact of the matter is that for the first time in their future Hall of Fame careers, two of the best players to ever do it went toe-to-toe.
“Another day at the office,” Cabrera said with a smile after Tuesday night’s loss, though he knew it was much more than that. “He was watching close today.”
In their first meeting, Verlander retired Cabrera on two pitches, pumping a mid-90s mph fastball past him before Cabrera flew out to center field on a breaking ball. In the second meeting, Cabrera struck out swinging. In the third, he grounded out to short.
The matchup marked one of the best batter-pitcher matchups in baseball: Cabrera vs. Verlander would rank among the highest combinations of Wins Above Replacement in such a matchup, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
The highest potential combination would be Angels first baseman Albert Pujols against Astros right-hander Zack Greinke, with Pujols against Verlander coming in second. The two Houston pitchers — Greinke and Verlander, who have totaled 70.9 and 68.6 WAR, respectively — face off with Pujols more often, playing against him in the American League West Division.
Wednesday’s matchup was highly anticipated: Both players have an appreciation for the history the game, are aware of where they stand among the game’s greats and raise their competition level going against similarly skilled players.
But for Gardenhire?
“I don’t really look forward to facing Verlander,” he said. “I don’t. I never did when I managed the Twins, although we always used to like to irritate the crap out of him when we’d bunt, but I don’t think you should start looking forward to facing guys like that.
“But, as you said, it’s kind of an entertaining, going to watch Miggy and him kind of spar and I’m sure they will, they’re good teammates together and I know Miggy, he’s going to be smiling at him, probably sticking his tongue out at him and all kind of things, so it could be for entertainment value.”
Cabrera patted his chest as a sign of respect to Verlander when he entered the batter’s box for his first at-bat, and they exchanged a few words as Cabrera trotted to first base on the fly out.
A night earlier, Cabrera shared these thoughts on how he thought Verlander would attack him, after watching him dominate hitters from first base for nearly 10 years: First-pitch breaking balls for get-me-over strikes, followed by plenty of fastballs.
But Verlander, who watched Cabrera dominate hitters from the Tigers dugout for nearly 10 years himself, out-foxed him early.
Regardless of the result, the matchup was one to behold, as the best batter-pitcher matchup of this Tigers’ season.
They met up at least one time before, in a live batting practice session in Lakeland, Florida, in 2017, when Cabrera enthusiastically said, “Damn, J.V.” out of admiration. This time, there was no batting cage. This time, it was for real.
Contact Anthony Fenech at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.