CLEVELAND — There’s been lots of talk around baseball this summer that something was wrong with Justin Verlander. Or at least as “wrong” as could be with a guy who entered Tuesday with an 11-8 record, 3.88 earned-run average and 138 strikeouts in 143∏ innings.
That’s plenty good for a lot of guys. But not somebody who posted a 41-13 record and led the American League in strikeouts the last two years. And certainly not the guy who was both the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player winner while going 24-5 in 2011.
Apologies to the Red Sox, Rays and perhaps the Athletics but I think the Detroit Tigers are going back to the World Series. Largely because they have 16-1 Max Scherzer at the top of the rotation, a bullpen that’s now been mostly fixed and a stud-filled lineup that has Miguel Cabrera en route to another batting title.
But it sure becomes a lot easier with the Verlander of the last few seasons instead of the 2013 model.
That’s what the Tigers got Tuesday night in Progressive Field, as Verlander was his old dominant self in a 5-1 win over the Cleveland Indians that gave Detroit its 10th straight win.
Verlander pitched eight brilliant innings, allowing four hits, striking out seven and walking none. The Tigers improved to 11-3 against Cleveland this year and have a five-game lead in the American League Central.
“That,” said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, “is the Justin Verlander we know. Hopefully there will be a lot more of that because he was outstanding.”
Verlander retired 11 men in a row in one stretch from the second through the fifth and was of vintage ilk in the fourth. That’s when he buried a called third strike past Jason Kipnis on a 97-mph fastball and blew a 98-mph heater past Asdrubal Cabrera for another strikeout.
He found trouble in the sixth as the Indians put runners at the corners with one out, but then buckled Kipnis’ knees with an 84-mph curveball for a called third strike and got Cabrera on a weak grounder to second.
“He finally found some momentum as far as mechanics and he was able to repeat them today,” said catcher Alex Avila. “He’s just a bulldog. He had that look in his eye. He was determined to do whatever it took to win that game. It was fun to catch. There were certain points in the game he was lights-out, just flat-out nasty.”
And look out, world. Verlander revealed after the game he may have unlocked his troubles with some video work after his last bullpen session.
He was too closed with his front leg, landing a few inches toward right-handed hitters than he should have been instead of driving through to the plate. The struggle had him working more off his breaking pitches rather than just blowing people away.
“I’m excited to see the adjustment I made not make just a little impact,” Verlander said. “I thought it was a pretty big impact today, kind of everything I’ve been searching for.”
The low point was July 25 in Chicago, when the lowly White Sox torched him for seven runs and 11 hits in six innings. But he threw six strong innings in an 11-1 win over Washington on July 31 and Tuesday’s performance was the second time this year he threw into the eighth inning.
The Tigers have been a little bored for much of the season and were still just five games over .500 (43-38) as late as July 1. Since then, they’re 23-7.
“The same way this team mentality has to be in the middle of a winning streak, I have to take that mentality from start to start,” Verlander said. “I’ve worked just about as hard as you can possibly work, throwing as many bullpens as I can and tinkering, trying to find something that clicked. I can’t work any harder than I have. It’s very nice to find something.”
“Detroit has about four aces. That’s why they’re so good,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said before the game. “Every night they send somebody out there, they feel really good about it. That’s part of their success.
Verlander was 3-2 in April and struggled with run support but had no trouble in other areas as his ERA was 1.83 and he had 41 strikeouts against 11 walks in 39 innings. But put together May, June and July and he was just 8-6 with a 4.66 ERA.
The calendar has now turned to August and Verlander opened the month like he means business.
His next start is Saturday in Yankee Stadium and he’ll be facing a much more challenged lineup than the Indians, even with the return of Alex Rodriguez.
Two straight strong outings. Verlander is heating up. Bad news for the rest of baseball. Good news for the Tigers to have another long October.