Tigers' Justin Verlander rises to occasion with playoff race heating up

DETROIT -- Detroit Tigers infielder Casey McGehee, who has played for seven different major league clubs, finds relief in the fact that he no longer has to face Justin Verlander in the batter's box.

He has seen enough of Verlander as an opponent to know what the Los Angeles Angels were feeling Friday night, stymied by the former AL Cy Young winner in the Tigers' 4-2 win at Comerica Park -- Detroit's fifth straight victory.

"It was the same nightmare I remember when I was staring him down from 60 feet," McGehee said after another gem of a performance from the 33-year-old ace.

Entering the night looking for his ninth consecutive quality start, the game began inauspiciously for Verlander, who served up a home run to Angels slugger Albert Pujols in the first inning. He surrendered a double to the next batter, C.J. Cron.

As Tigers manager Brad Ausmus noted after the game, it didn't seem like a harbinger of good things to come.

"He actually came out a little rusty, I thought, but as the game went on, he got sharper and sharper," Ausmus said. "Especially his slider."

Verlander's countenance changed after that first frame, as did his mechanics. Verlander made an adjustment on his slider during warmups after the second inning, which paid dividends. He would retire the next eight batters, striking out five.

Ausmus said Verlander's slider "in the middle innings of his outing, was as good as we've seen it all year. It was the best his slider has looked all year."

Verlander didn’t argue.

"Yeah, I would have to agree," he said of the in-game adjustment paying off. "For whatever reason, it just clicked."

Verlander, and the Tigers, couldn't afford a less-than-stellar outing at this time of the season. Verlander rose to the occasion, limiting the Angels to just two runs on four hits with one walk and eight strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings pitched.

He almost made it through the eighth inning, though a 10-pitch battle with Cliff Pennington caused his pitch count to climb. The RBI double that followed it put the tying run, Mike Trout, at the plate. When Verlander was removed from the game -- Ausmus opted to go to closer Francisco Rodriguez for the rare four-out save -- he left the field to a standing ovation.

He waved as he walked off to the dugout. After the game, he spoke about how much he relishes pitching at this time of year. At this juncture last season, the Tigers were essentially cooked. As of Friday night, Detroit remains in the thick of the playoff race, one game back of the second wild-card spot and trailing the AL Central-leading Indians by 4.5 games.

"This is what you work for. This is what you work so hard in the offseason for, so that you can be strong at the end of the season and continue to give yourself the chance to win when it really counts," Verlander said.

While Verlander has been stingy over the past nine games -- he has posted a 6-1 record with a 1.98 ERA and 69 strikeouts during that span -- the offense has also done its share of heavy lifting.

Justin Upton, who was given a three-game hiatus a little over a week ago to mentally "reset" after a prolonged stretch of struggles, lasered a two-run home run to left in the sixth for his fourth homer in the past five games. His uptick in production has been particularly encouraging considering his tendency to be streaky this first season in Detroit.

"He can carry a club by himself when he gets hot," Verlander said of the left fielder, who now has 17 home runs this season.

Rodriguez converted his 36th save of the season and the 422nd of his career -- tied with Billy Wagner for fifth in major-league history -- though Ausmus made it clear he is still wary of turning to Rodriguez in a four-out situation.

Ausmus has done so only three times this season, and insisted that he will not make a habit of it, even with the team pushing for a postseason berth.

"I would think as we come down to the wire, you might see it more, but you're not going to see me do it often," Ausmus said. "I think K-Rod could handle it, but I just don't think closers are built that way nowadays. I think the pitch counts get high, and I think the adrenaline seesaw is tough. A lot of closers pitch on adrenaline, and they pitch on adrenaline for one inning, and to ask them to come in for an out, and then they sit down and try to repump themselves up. It's tough to do sometimes."