Tigers cut down by Twins' ace
Detroit's Verlander shows his command is back despite loss
DETROIT -- Another showdown, another dramatic duel between the Tigers and Twins. This time, however, wasn't win-or-go-home.
If the Tigers learned anything from their one-game playoff loss in Minnesota last October, it's that every win is golden, whether it's in April or September. In that context, they couldn't feel good about a 2-0 loss to Minnesota on Tuesday, even as they ventured home to catch up on sleep from their early-morning flight back from Texas. They had a chance to pull out a win, but couldn't solve Francisco Liriano's slider.
"Wow," Miguel Cabrera said. "He looked good."
At the same time, the Tigers know they can't go very far this season unless Justin Verlander pitches well, certainly better than his first four outings. And in that sense, though this decision goes down as a loss for Verlander, he and his manager couldn't help but feel this was the start that turns him around.
He said after his five-inning, 125-pitch grind last time out that he didn't deserve the win that went on his record. He wouldn't say that about Tuesday's loss, even though both runs were unearned, but he had to feel better about himself.
It wasn't as long of an outing as he would've liked, still throwing 120-plus pitches and not getting through the sixth, but it was better. It was enough to keep him trading zero for zero with Liriano heading towards the late innings.
"I think it's definitely a big step," Verlander said. "I felt 10 times better today, just overall, than I had at any point this season. I feel like I kind of found what I was missing. Just take that, log it away and go to the next one."
All he was missing from a scoreless outing, really, was a catch. It would've been a tough catch from left fielder Ryan Raburn, who had to run a long way to get under it, but his reaction as J.J. Hardy's fly ball fell into his glove and popped out suggested that he thought he had it.
It was the first two costly two-out Tigers errors that led to runs, along with rookie second baseman's Scott Sizemore throw wide of first base on a ground ball deep behind the bag in the seventh. But as Verlander and manager Jim Leyland both said, it's part of the game. Raburn's error came after a two-out walk to Jim Thome extended the inning, just as a Fu-Te Ni walk extended the seventh inning for Thome's ground ball and Sizemore's error.
The way Liriano was pitching, they still would've had to put up a run at some point to win it. But Verlander at least gave them a shot.
Raburn's error came on Verlander's 121st and final pitch. According to research on baseball-reference.com, just four other pitchers in the last 20 years threw 120 pitches in back-to-back outings without getting through the sixth inning either time. Scott Erickson, Wilson Alvarez, Dwight Gooden and Mark Langston all did their feats after Memorial Day. Verlander did it in April.
Given the Tigers' situation, they didn't have a whole lot of alternatives. With the Tigers bullpen taxed and Verlander needing to find command, Leyland decided before the game even started that Verlander was going to throw his share. How deep into the game it took him was up to him.
"I had my mind made up before the game that he was going to throw 120 pitches, whether it was [into] the fourth inning or the eighth inning," Leyland said. "And he threw 121."
Verlander knew the bullpen situation and the lack of an off-day anytime soon. He also knew what he needed to do to get his command back.
Verlander and Tigers coaches noticed watching video of that last start that he was opening up too much in his delivery, throwing off his command and his sharpness. He said it was a quirk in his body positioning at the top of his leg kick that caused it. He didn't avoid it every pitch Tuesday, he said, but he cured a lot of it.
The result wasn't an efficient outing, but it as an outing that showed him with an out-pitch again, whether it was his fastball on most counts or his secondary pitches on others. He walked his old nemesis Thome three times, but that was it for his walks. Though the Twins worked him for more than a half-dozen three-ball counts, they didn't get much to show for it. Their two star, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, went 0-for-8 combined with four strikeouts, the first time they both went hitless against Detroit since May 5 of last year.
"Goodness gracious, he had a lot of pitches thrown, but man alive, was he game-on," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "A tough guy and he made it tough on us."
Seventy-one of Verlander's 121 pitches went for strikes, including his last. He said he could think of at least four pitches off the top of his head that, had they gone different, would've saved him 20-25 pitches.
That it fell, allowing Thome to score from first, wasn't something he was going to harp on, not after the win he picked up last time out.
"It's part of the game," Verlander said. "Those guys have played their tails off for me all year, in the field and at the plate, and really kept me in some games that I had no right being in. Is it tough? Yeah, and I'm sure those guys are the first to tell you that. But this is a team game, and that's part of it. You just have to go out there, slap them on the butt, and say, 'Let's get them next time.'"
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.