Verlander, Tigers back alone in first
Ace works out of ninth-inning jam to finish off complete game
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander kept looking into the Tigers' dugout as one White Sox batter after another reached base in the ninth inning Friday afternoon, until the bases were loaded with nobody out and the potential tying run at the plate. He hoped he wasn't coming out of the game, but he knew it was possible when he saw manager Jim Leyland on the phone.
Aside from getting outs, there wasn't much Verlander could do about it, except glare. Mind you, it's a pretty powerful glare. In the end, his complete-game 5-1 Tigers win over the White Sox was a pretty powerful performance.
"I'm really competitive," Verlander said. "I want the ball in that situation. I'm looking into the dugout, and I'm not going to tell you what I'm thinking. It's along the lines of, 'Don't come out here.'
"I saw him get off the phone, I saw him give a couple claps, and that was it. Then it's, 'All right. Game on. Let's go.'"
It was on. Two batters and three outs later, it was over, and the Tigers were back in first place by themselves.
Verlander had a similar thought in his head in the third inning when pitching coach Rick Knapp came to the mound. He had given up a leadoff double to Dewayne Wise, walked Jermaine Dye with one out, and fallen behind on a 2-0 count to his nemesis, Jim Thome.
Knapp came out to get Verlander to slow down and make his pitches. The ace knew that already.
"I wasn't very happy with him being out there in the middle of a big situation," Verlander said with a sheepish grin. "I'm kind of fired up. In so many words, I was like, 'All right, let's go.' But he said what he needed to say, and it got through. I'm a little stubborn sometimes. It still got through my thick skull. I made the adjustment."
He had to. By then, Verlander had already thrown 45 pitches. Getting from that point to the ninth was a feat in itself. Finishing it off was a rollercoaster ride, with quite a finish.
It's the latest example of how Verlander commands a game whenever he pitches, no matter the situation. While much of the afternoon was a duel between Verlander and Jose Contreras, or Verlander and the White Sox sluggers who used to pummel him in earlier seasons, the game swung on how Verlander handled himself.
After an eight-pitch opening inning, the young right-hander had fallen out of sync, and he was struggling to get himself back in.
"Right off the bat, he was cruising pretty good," Leyland said. "And then, for a couple hitters, it looked like all of a sudden he wanted to throw it 110 mph."
Verlander walked three batters and gave up a single and a double in a seven-batter span of the second and third innings, including loading the bases with two outs in the second, yet he didn't give up a run from it. He followed Knapp's mound meeting by firing three straight fastballs past Thome before Paul Konerko grounded out to end the inning.
The only run he allowed all day was unearned. A.J. Pieryznski led off the fourth with a ground ball to first base that Miguel Cabrera threw away. Carlos Quentin doubled Pierzynski over to third for Gordon Beckham's sacrifice fly.
At that point, Verlander had 73 pitches through four innings. No matter how many swings and misses he could get, he needed quick outs if he was going to last in the game.
"I knew if I wanted a chance to go seven or eight, which was my game plan, I would have to get some quick outs," Verlander said, "make some quality pitches with my fastball and get some guys to put the ball in play early. It couldn't have worked out any better than it did."
Though Beckham's sac fly put Chicago on the scoreboard, it also got Verlander on a roll. Starting with Chris Getz's popout a batter earlier, Verlander retired 14 of 15 batters, including 10 in a row after Thome's fifth-inning walk. The righty sent down the side in the seventh on just eight pitches, and the eighth inning in just seven.
"That's the difference between this year and last year," Leyland said. "He's figured it out. He calmed down a little bit. What you saw today was pretty impressive, because that's a very deep and impressive lineup."
The crowd of 27,844 gave Verlander a standing ovation as he left the field in the eighth, but Leyland left him in. Once the manager decided that, he was pretty much all-in, win or lose, because he probably wasn't going to put in closer Fernando Rodney in a bases-loaded jam.
"Even though I knew Verlander should stay out, and I believe it in my heart, I can't say it didn't cross my mind that maybe I should go to Rodney now," Leyland said.
Leyland didn't, so it was up to Verlander to get out of the jam. Once three straight singles loaded the bases, Verlander got out of it in Rodney-like fashion, getting a comebacker from Beckham to start a 1-2-3 double play before Wise grounded out.
"We had a great opportunity to score a couple of times," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said, "and we didn't. He threw the ball real well."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.