Tigers hold on to get Verlander first win
Righty needs 125 pitches to make it through five innings
ANAHEIM -- Justin Verlander needed 125 pitches over five innings to put himself in line for this win. Ryan Perry needed 27 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth and preserve it. Carlos Guillen fell over trying to score an insurance run because he strained his left hamstring.
It was that kind of night for the Tigers. For a change, they didn't need a comeback to salvage a series split against the Angels with Thursday's 5-4 win. But after building an early lead, they had to feel it took more out of them to hold on than it did to rally the night before.
"It felt like we were fighting an uphill battle all night long, even though we had the lead," manager Jim Leyland said. "It seemed like the game took eight hours. With Justin struggling the way he was, it felt like we were the ones that were behind, you know.
"But that showed me something. We hung in there. The bullpen came in and did great. We snuck out of here with a win that we wanted to get."
The Tigers have grown accustomed to that feeling of trailing and then rallying. They entered Thursday with more wins when trailing after six innings (five) than when leading after six (three). They had just four games in which they scored first, and they had won just two of them. And they had furious comebacks the previous two nights against the Angels' bullpen.
Yet one night after they scored two ninth-inning runs off closer Brian Fuentes, they pounced on Angels starter Joe Saunders for five runs in the first three innings, including their first second-inning run of the season. Johnny Damon and Magglio Ordonez scored each of their first two times at bat, banging out three of Detroit's six hits off Saunders and chasing off the left-hander with two outs in the third.
With their ace Verlander on the mound, it seemed all set up for a win to salvage a split of the four-game series. Yet it took not only every last pitch out of Verlander, but four other relievers to finally put down the Halos and knock the rally monkey racket off the scoreboard at Angel Stadium.
Two starts ago, Verlander had his fastball working, but couldn't do anything with the rest of his repertoire. In his last start last Saturday at Seattle, Verlander had his breaking ball and changeup working but no idea where the fastball was going.
By his own estimation, when he took the mound with a two-run lead Thursday, he had nothing.
"The first, second and third, I was a mess," Verlander said. "Not a mess, but you know, I was all over the place. [It was] everything. I have some mechanical issues that I need to correct."
It took eight batters and 36 pitches, including a game-tying single from Kendry Morales, for Verlander to get out of the opening inning. He was at 81 pitches through three innings before recovering a bit by retiring the side in order in the fourth. Fittingly enough, he was in pitch-conservation mode on Earth Day, and the Angels knew it.
Leyland was determined to try to get Verlander through five innings, not only to conserve his taxed bullpen but also to get Verlander eligible for the win. But after an 11-pitch at-bat to get a groundout from Torii Hunter leading off the fifth, then a 10-pitch battle with Hideki Matsui that ended with a home run, Verlander was down to his last two batters.
"[Matsui] and Torii had two of the best at-bats I've seen in a long time," Verlander said.
Once Maicer Izturis lined to new left fielder Don Kelly for the final out in the fifth, Verlander was at 125 pitches. He became the first Tigers pitcher to throw that many pitches in five innings or less since at least 1991, and the first Major League pitcher to do that and get a win out of it since Cal Eldred did it for Milwaukee against Detroit in 1997.
It wasn't exactly a point of pride for him.
"I really don't feel like I deserve this win," Verlander said. "I think that goes to our ballclub, our hitters, our bullpen especially. I think our bullpen tonight did a fantastic job, came in and really closed the door in some tough situations. That being said, I was really pleased to hang in there and give us a chance."
As the Tigers' bullpen tried to preserve that one-run lead, they had to feel doubly cursed by Guillen's misfortune. He nearly tacked on another run when he doubled in the fifth ahead of Scott Sizemore's single. However, he seemed to take a bad step rounding third base, fell a few steps later and strained his hamstring. What would've been an extra run instead became a tagout between third and home, and Guillen was headed for the disabled list.
More than once, that run seemed destined to haunt them, especially as Perry battled three different Angels hitters to try to get the final out. A 2-2 pitch to Howard Kendrick ended up an infield single, then Perry hit Juan Rivera with another 2-2 pitch. Again on 2-2 to Erick Aybar, the 23-year-old spotted a 96 mph fastball on the outside corner for the third out, handing the lead to Jose Valverde for his fifth save.
"It was definitely an exciting game," Perry said. "It's what people want to see."
It might not have been what the Tigers wanted to see as they awaited a flight to Texas, which was set to arrive at 6 a.m. CT. But they'll gladly take it.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.