As everyone who watches baseball knows, the regular season can feel very long and arduous. There are many times during the 162-game adventure when you’ll hear the phrase, “They needed this one” if a team is in a funk -- or in some cases, “He needed this one.”
Well, Justin Verlander needed this one Saturday night.
The 2014 season hasn’t been very pleasant for the Tigers’ ace. He came into his start against the Indians having given up 19 earned runs in his past three starts and with his ERA an un-Verlander-like 4.98.
It might seem silly to say that a game on the first day of summer is an important one, but it certainly was for Verlander.
He started off strong and needed only 12 pitches to retire the Indians in order. His first fastball of the game was measured at 91 mph.
After the Tigers took a quick 1-0 lead on Victor Martinez’s 19th home run of the season, Verlander ran into a little bit of trouble in the second inning when Lonnie Chisenhall hit a double to left field (it was the first hit surrendered by Verlander), and Nick Swisher followed with a bullet of a groundball that took a wicked bounce on second baseman Ian Kinsler and traveled into right field. Chisenhall sped around the bases and scored on the play, which was ruled an error. So while the Indians tied up the game, Verlander hadn’t given up an earned run. Verlander settled down and got Daniel Murphy to ground out to end the inning.
In the bottom of the third, there was a funny moment when Asdrubal Cabrera hit a bunt that hugged the third-base line. Verlander ran over to try and field it, but the ball hugged the foul line, and stayed fair, and he jokingly pretended to kick at it twice, as if he were playing soccer. For Verlander, there was no harm, no foul because he got Michael Brantley to fly out to right-center field.
A good sign for Verlander was that he had his fastball working, and by the time the third inning ended, he had racked up three strikeouts and given up only two hits.
Indians first baseman Carlos Santana came into the game with five home runs against Verlander. In the bottom of the fourth, Santana hit his sixth, on a 95 mph fastball over the plate, to give the Indians a 2-1 lead. But again, Verlander was able to settle down; he then retired both Chisenhall and Swisher on strikeouts.
One thing Verlander has been struggling with this season is his average when facing a lineup the third time through the order: Opponents were batting .345 in such at-bats. But if the fifth inning was a test for Verlander, he passed, even though it was a little dicey. He led off the inning by walking Murphy, but Yan Gomes grounded into a force, and the Tigers got the lead runner on the play for the first out. Verlander came back and struck out Michael Bourn on an 85 mph changeup for the second out. Cabrera then singled off Verlander again -- this time up the middle -- to put men on first and second with two outs. It was the first real threat against Verlander all game, but luckily for him, Brantley bailed him out by swinging at the first pitch and lining it right to Kinsler for the third out.
After the Tigers tied the game in the top of the sixth, Verlander came out and pitched a 1-2-3 inning and recorded his seventh strikeout of the game when Santana struck out swinging.
Verlander walked onto the mound for the seventh inning with a 4-2 lead thanks to back-to-back homers by Rajai Davis and Kinsler. Verlander was sitting at 89 pitches. On his 100th, he got Gomes to fly out for his final out. When Verlander exited the mound at the end of the inning, he left the game having retired the last seven Indians he faced to finish up a much-needed strong outing.
He pitched seven innings, gave up only four hits and one earned run, walked one batter, struck out eight and lowered his ERA to 4.73.
The good news for Detroit fans is their ace looked more like his old self Saturday than the Justin Verlander of the past three starts. His fastball velocity was steadily in the 94 to 95 mph range, while his off-speed pitches hovered around the mid-80s. And when that sort of thing is happening, it’s harder for opposing batters to adjust. What both the Tigers and their fans should hope is that this outing will put Verlander back on the right track.