Justin Verlander misses out on rare air but breathes life into Tigers

DETROIT -- It wasn't until Los Angeles Angels shortstop Erick Aybar was at the plate in the eighth inning, on a 2-0 count, that Detroit Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez realized something was out of the ordinary.

David Murphy had just worked a walk, and Tigers ace Justin Verlander was at 91 pitches. Martinez glanced toward the bullpen and wondered why no one was stirring. Then he understood.

Martinez might well have been the last person at Comerica Park to join in the fevered anticipation. By that time, the entire crowd was already on its feet. Manager Brad Ausmus stood, unmoving, in his dugout spot, gnawing on barbecue–flavored sunflower seeds until his mouth went numb. Teammates were careful to keep their distance.

Verlander was on the verge of history, one inning away from joining an elite group of the game's greatest hurlers. Only five other pitchers had thrown three career no-hitters. Among them? Nolan Ryan (seven), Sandy Koufax (four), Bob Feller (three), Larry Corcoran (three) and Cy Young (three).

His stuff was plenty good enough, with his fastball consistently in the mid-90s late in the game, even hitting 97 mph during one critical stretch in the seventh inning when he faced the top of the Angels' order and fanned Albert Pujols to strike out the side.

So when Angels catcher Chris Iannetta, batting seventh, managed to land a leadoff double that dropped squarely on the left-field line in the top of the ninth, there were few words for what was going through Verlander's mind:

"Beeeeeep ... " Verlander recalled after the game.

The 32-year-old was just shy of recording his third career no-hitter and instantly he knew it wasn't where he wanted to put that pitch. After the game, he and teammate Ian Kinsler agreed: It was the only pitch he put over the heart of the plate, and it was the only one that robbed him of glory in the aftermath of the Tigers' 5-0 victory.

"It's heartbreaking," rookie catcher James McCann said. "That's literally as close as you can get. One hit that lands on the foul line, but with all that being said, it was a heck of a night for him."

That much was true, with Verlander finishing nine innings pitched with no runs, one hit, two walks and nine strikeouts for his 21st career complete game and seventh shutout. It could not have come at a better time, either, as the gem halted the Tigers' five-game losing streak and injected life into a room that has been simmering with frustration in recent days.

If Verlander's superlative performance on the mound is a harbinger for things to come, it's perhaps the most encouraging sign for a team that is currently six games under .500 (60-66) that the Tigers' ace is rounding back into form after an injury-hampered past couple of seasons.

Verlander, who underwent abdominal surgery prior to the 2014 season and began the 2015 season on the disabled list, is coming back from the toughest stretch of his career. Wednesday night brought him one step closer to silencing any skepticism that he could once again become the type of dominant pitcher from years past.

He has always believed he would get there. Now everyone else will be forced to as well.

"This has a special meaning because of the way the fans were treating me and reacting. I know they've wanted to see me back as bad as I have, and from the sixth inning on, they were unbelievable," Verlander said. "They gave me goosebumps coming off the mound in the seventh because of the way they were reacting. It was nice to hear."

Twice previously, Verlander had thrown a no-hitter: on May 7, 2011, against the Toronto Blue Jays and on June 12, 2007, against the Milwaukee Brewers.

He's had no-hitters broken up in the ninth inning before as well, as he was painfully reminded. While speaking with reporters, the clubhouse television aired clips of his near-accomplishment from May 2012, when Josh Harrison's single to center broke up his bid against the Pittsburgh Pirates when he was just two outs away.

He still thinks about that one. Chances are, he'll always remember this one, too. He wants to join that decorated group one day.

He didn't get there Wednesday night, but he proved to others, and himself, that he is back.

"You just have to be positive in yourself and believe in yourself. That's what I've done my entire career," Verlander said. " You can't listen to the naysayers. You just have to go out there and do what you can -- work your butt off and believe."

Verlander entered Wednesday with a 1.67 ERA in his previous six starts, though his effectiveness was largely overlooked since those outings hadn't translated into wins. It won't be now.

"Over the last seven or eight starts, he's kind of shown that he's still got Justin Verlander inside of him," Ausmus said. "And I think tonight was a little bit of an exclamation point."