Homer-happy Tigers cruise to win
Verlander earns first victory of season with quality start
DETROIT -- This is what the Tigers offense is supposed to do, take good pitches to hit and punish them. This is also what Justin Verlander is supposed to do, spot his mid-90s fastball and work ahead of hitters.
However, this is far from what Ramon Santiago is expected to do.
With Rangers starter Vicente Padilla leaving his fastball in the strike zone on Tuesday night, the Tigers pounced for their first three-homer inning since last May. It was the third of the home runs that was the rarer feat. Santiago's two-run shot completed the five-run third, sending Detroit on its way to a 10-2 victory and erasing a lengthy gap on his career resume.
Not since Santiago was Detroit's starting shortstop in the 119-loss season of 2003 had he hit a Major League home run. Or in more relative terms, Rangers third-base coach Matt Walbeck was the starting catcher for the Tigers on the day Santiago last homered in the big leagues.
"I hope he doesn't start hitting the ball in the air," Leyland said, "because that will be the kiss of death for him."
No danger there.
"Me, I'm a line-drive hitter," Santiago said.
Santiago's second-inning RBI double was more along those lines, an opposite-field drive that gave the Tigers a 2-1 lead. Then Detroit's bats broke out in the third.
Padilla (2-2) hung a 2-2 fastball to Magglio Ordonez, who hit it out to left for his third homer of the season. Three pitches later, Miguel Cabrera hit a line drive into the left-field seats, Cabrera's fourth home run on the year.
Jacque Jones nearly homered in the next at-bat, but his drive to straightaway center merely one-hopped off the fence, 420-feet away, for a triple. Edgar Renteria singled him in, before a fielder's choice by Brandon Inge brought up Santiago.
The switch-hitting utility infielder, who had a two-homer game as a rookie in 2002 that included a leadoff shot off Pedro Martinez, took a 1-0 pitch and pulled it down the right-field line.
"I hit it pretty good, and the ball carried very good," Santiago said. "It was a pitch middle-in, and I hit it out front. When you hit the ball in front with the barrel of the bat, the ball carries. I put a good swing on it."
It marked his first home run since he took a James Baldwin pitch deep against the Twins at the Metrodome on Aug. 1, 2003. Santiago had gone 417 Major League plate appearances without a home run, though his Minor League time in between included a 10-homer season at Triple-A Tacoma in 2005.
The collective effect was a comfortable cushion for Verlander to earn his first win of the season. The young right-hander, who won 35 games over his first two full big league seasons, had battled fastball command and innings that turned on him quickly in each of his first four starts.
This time, though his velocity was strong throughout at 94-96 mph, his test came in the early innings. He stranded two runners in the opening inning by throwing a 96-mph fastball by Hank Blalock, but former Tiger Frank Catalanotto made him pay for falling behind with a home run leading off the second. Back-to-back singles put two on with one out for the top of the Rangers order.
Verlander recovered to set up a change of speeds and struck out Ian Kinsler. He followed with an offspeed pitch to All-Star Michael Young, who flew out to center to end the threat.
"Tonight," Verlander said, "was a battle."
With 110 pitches over six innings, he didn't go as deep as he would've liked. Still, he scattered two hits from the third inning on, had a few quick groundouts, and generally kept the ball out of harm's way on his way to six hits over as many innings with two walks and three strikeouts.
"I think Justin's close," Leyland said. "I don't think he's totally there yet, but I think he's close. I think he was a little bit stuck on fast-forward [with his pace] yet, but I thought the ball came out of his hand very well. He elevated velocity when he needed to, pitched with a little more velocity than he has been.
"Getting that first win under his belt could do wonders for him. We've just got to get him back into a consistent rhythm."
Much of the progress on Tuesday, Verlander (1-3) credited to a slight change in his arm angle between starts. Not only was his fastball harder, but he said his breaking ball felt crisper. If he can continue that, he could be back to the pitcher many expect to frustrate hitters over the course of the season for a team that's expected to hit better as the weather warms up.
Just don't expect home run power from Santiago.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.