Verlander's encore is command performance
Tigers ace makes strong run at consecutive no-hitters
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander had finished up his postgame interviews on Friday night when he walked across an almost empty clubhouse to find Alex Avila.
Six days earlier, Avila met Verlander at the mound and started the mob scene to congratulate him on his no-hitter. They couldn't get the no-hitter this time, but Verlander made the walk to greet him.
"We made a heckuva run at it," Verlander said as he shook Avila's hand.
"Heckuva run," answered Avila, his chance at another steak dinner denied.
It was almost a historic run, 10 outs short of a second straight no-hitter. For a few innings, it looked like he couldn't miss it. Not only did the Royals not have a hit until Melky Cabrera's triple with two out in the sixth, they didn't have so much as a solidly-hit ball.
"I've got a lot of at-bats off him now, and I thought that was the best I've seen him," said Royals All-Star slugger Billy Butler, 13-for-32 off Verlander entering the night. "He definitely had his stuff going, he wasn't giving in. I walked twice, but he was really either on the corners or just off. He pretty much was putting it wherever he wanted to, with velocity and good stuff."
A few days earlier, Verlander told reporters that Johnny Vander Meer's standard of consecutive no-hitters in 1938 probably would never be matched, but he also said that records are made to be broken. He also had said he liked to think that he was capable of a no-hitter whenever he takes the mound with that type of ability.
On Friday, his stuff was arguably more capable of a no-hitter than what he had Friday. Unlike last Saturday, he had every pitch working.
"He had four-plus pitches tonight," Butler said.
When he no-hit the Blue Jays, his strength was a devastating slider and a changeup that complemented his fastball, which hit triple digits on radar guns late in the game as his adrenaline rose. He didn't get close enough to do that Saturday, though he said he would have if he had taken his no-hit bid through six innings. The way his offspeed stuff was working, though, he didn't have to.
"Curveball was really going," Verlander said. "The last start, it was almost non-existent. I really relied on the slider and changeup. And then this start, I changed my grip a little bit, just got a little bit tighter with it, and the results were phenomenal. I felt it was the best curveball I've had this year."
After walking Butler to lead off the second, Verlander went on his roll, retiring 13 straight Royals. Rookie Eric Hosmer's fly ball just shy of the left-field warning track, allowing Butler to tag up and move to second base, was the only time Detroit's defense was even close to tested in that stretch. The next time Hosmer came up in the fifth, he took curveballs for strikes one and three.
Royals manager Ned Yost saw Verlander's first no-hitter while managing the Brewers in 2007.
"His fastball wasn't as explosive tonight as it normally is," Yost said. "When he's got four quality pitches going like he does, when he throws his curveball and changeup, a 92-93 mph fastball looks like 97. But when he's throwing 96, 97, it looks like 105. You can't sit on it, because his breaking stuff is so dynamic but the movement on his fastball was really good."
The similarity for Verlander between his last outing and this one was his poise. He set a relaxed tempo, didn't get out of control, and stuck with it. For someone making his first home appearance since throwing a no-hitter on the road, that wasn't easy.
"The biggest part of tonight's game, and I'm really proud, was there was that aroma from the media, the fans and everything else," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That's not easy to do what that kid did tonight, with everybody talking about him and Johnny Vander Meer and coming home with open arms and stuff. I'm really proud of him. "
Verlander admitted there were moments when that was particularly difficult.
"I was excited to come back home in front of the home crowd," Verlander said. "I love these fans here in Detroit. There was a few times here tonight where the hair on the back of my neck stood up a little bit. One was coming in out of the bullpen when they announced my name and they started cheering. And when I came out of the fifth inning, the fans started really getting into it. That got me pretty excited."
The buzz was building when Verlander struck out former Tiger Matt Treanor for the second time, swinging and missing at a slider to lead off the sixth. A four-pitch walk gave Kansas City its first baserunner since Butler in the second. Chris Getz's groundout to second on a hit-and-run play advanced Alcides Escobar, but continued the no-hit bid.
Up came Cabrera, 2-for-15 lifetime off Verlander heading into the at-bat. Verlander missed inside on a first-pitch fastball that hit 99 mph on MLB.com's Gameday application, then came back with a changeup that wandered over the plate.
"Obviously I was upset at myself," Verlander said. "I threw a hanging changeup there. I threw a fastball in off the plate and thought a good changeup away would get him. I just hung it, and obviously I was a little upset at myself. And he hit it. He did what he's supposed to do."
He hit it deep into right-center field and kept running for an RBI triple. The crowd of 33,641 gave him a standing ovation as he gathered himself to face Alex Gordon as the potential tying run.
Once Verlander went back to the curveball to retire Gordon, the crowd roared again. Verlander, one of baseball's more focused pitchers when he's at work, broke out of character for just a moment, waving his hand in acknowledgement on his way back to the dugout. He kept his head down the entire time.
"Usually, I don't want to acknowledge anything when I'm pitching, and I know I'm going back out there," Verlander said. "But they were so supportive, I couldn't help but give a little bit of a wave, just to kind of acknowledge that I hear them and I appreciate it."
According to STATS, it's the deepest a pitcher has gone into a second straight no-hit bid since Mark Buehrle, who also went 5 2/3 hitless on July 28, 2009 at Minnesota before giving up a Denard Span single. Buehrle threw a perfect game against Tampa Bay five days earlier.
Verlander still had a chance to match the American League record for fewest hits allowed over consecutive starts -- one, set by Boston's Howard Ehmke in 1923. But Treanor's leadoff double in the eighth took care of that and again put the lead in danger. Verlander retired the side from there, including a flyout from Cabrera to end his outing, and had some words for Cabrera on the way off the mound one last time.
"I wasn't thinking about that when I faced Melky the last time. I wasn't thinking, 'All right, I'm really ticked off at this guy.' It just kind of ... I'm a very emotional person when I'm on the mound. As soon as I got him to pop out, it just kind of came out of me."