Verlander dominates Halos for sweep
Right-hander retired 23 consecutive batters at one point
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander emerged from his previous outing against the Angels last week and said he didn't deserve the win, not with 125 pitches over five innings. He certainly didn't have to make any apologies Sunday.
He didn't really have to say much. With 8 1/3 innings of three-hit ball, 23 consecutive Angels retired, a 99-mph fastball and a one-hit shutout going into the ninth inning, his numbers coming out of Sunday's 5-1 win followed the message: Verlander is back.
He started on his dominant stretch of starts around this time last year. If he needed an outing from which to build to get there, he's got it.
"Since the beginning of the season, I've been working hard to get my body in a position to be able to repeat my delivery," Verlander said. "And I felt like today I was able to do that. I got in some good counts because I was able to throw some quality strikes when I needed to.
"[I need to] just continue to do that. Easier said than done, but just realize what I did to get where I am now."
It took quite a bit to get there, from a mechanical tweak aimed at helping his command to a better mix of pitches. But once Verlander found it and got into a rhythm, he made outs seem easy Sunday.
Verlander needed just seven pitches to send down the middle of the Angels' lineup in order in the fourth inning. He struck out Mike Napoli looking at a curveball in the second inning, then sent him swinging and missing at a 98-mph fastball in the fifth. He hit 99 mph on his final pitch of the eighth inning, and he had just crossed the 100-pitch mark in that at-bat.
"I think I've got one of the best seats to watch him pitch like that," rookie center fielder Austin Jackson said.
Alex Avila might be able to rival that. He was behind the plate for Verlander for the first time in a regular-season game. In either case, they had better views than Angels who had to step into the box and try to hit those pitches.
"That's as close to a no-hitter as you're going to get without actually throwing one," Avila said. "He was in a zone like guys that have thrown no-hitters before. He's thrown one, so obviously he knows that feeling.
"That was fantastic. We all needed it. He needed it."
With a chance at a series sweep and a fifth straight win, the Tigers needed it. With a 5.53 ERA and back-to-back outings with at least 120 pitches but fewer than six innings, Verlander definitely needed it. Manager Jim Leyland had put him on what he called a strict pitch count and said he couldn't let the young ace rack up pitch after pitch after pitch without results.
Leyland softened his stance Sunday and let Verlander throw 120 pitches again. By the time he hit that mark, though, he was in the ninth inning -- not the sixth -- and he was trying for a complete-game shutout.
"He was tremendous," Leyland said. "The tape was on the right speed today. It wasn't on fast-forward."
In other words: Verlander wasn't overthrowing, he wasn't trying to throw pitches at rapid-fire speed, and he wasn't throwing at top speed from the get-go. This was the rhythm not only Verlander wanted, but Leyland as well.
Verlander threw a heavy dose of fastballs in his opening inning, but he changed speeds on them, ranging from 93 mph to 98 mph, according to MLB.com's Gameday application. Torii Hunter centered a 96-mph fastball and lined it up the middle for a two-out single, but Verlander retired Hideki Matsui to end the inning.
That was the Angels' lone baserunner until the ninth inning, when pinch-hitter Maicer Izturis drew groans out of a crowd of 25,603 with a line-drive single to right.
Not only did Verlander not walk a batter, he had just a trio of three-ball counts. He retired more than twice that many batters in three pitches or less. Despite the Justin Verlander K-counter bobblehead giveaway before the game, he wasn't anywhere near a high-strikeout performance until he fanned four of the final 10 batters he faced, giving him seven on the day.
His pitches weren't as nasty as his no-hitter three years ago, he said, but his control was better. He used many of them to create contact and outs, not just swings and misses.
"He threw every pitch for a strike -- fastball, changeup, breaking ball," shortstop Ramon Santiago said. "That's the best I've seen him."
Command was what he lacked in April. He would control his fastball or his secondary pitches, but not both.
Verlander kept a scoreless battle going with Angels starter Jered Weaver until Santiago hit another nasty pitch, this one from Weaver. It was a fastball up and inside near his hands, and he turned on it for a soft fly ball down the right-field line, landing on chalk as Avila came home.
"I don't know how I hit that pitch," Santiago said.
It was the Tigers' third consecutive hit of the inning, and it sent Weaver reeling from there. A run-scoring wild pitch and a Miguel Cabrera RBI single later, Weaver was out, having used up 107 pitches over 4 2/3 innings.
That was a Verlander type of outing in April. Not Sunday.
"Hopefully this is a really good learning curve for him," Leyland said of Verlander.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.