The decline of Justin Verlander the past couple of seasons was pretty painful to watch, even if you're not a fan of the Detroit Tigers. That's why his no-hit bid on Wednesday was both surprising and joyful, not just a reminder of his dominance from not so long ago, but a hopeful sign that he's far from washed up and that there's life yet to live in the ol' noodle.
Verlander lost the no-hitter with no outs in the ninth against the Los Angeles Angels, when Chris Iannetta doubled off the chalk on the left-field foul line. Verlander threw a 2-2 fastball that caught too much of the plate; maybe he should have thrown a slider considering Iannetta had whiffed badly on one off the plate earlier in the count. Maybe he should have thrown a curve, like the one he froze Mike Trout with on a 3-2 count in the eighth. Verlander settled for the bittersweet one-hitter, failing to become just the sixth pitcher to throw three no-hitters: Nolan Ryan (7), Sandy Koufax (4), Bob Feller (3), Cy Young (3), Larry Corcoran (3).
We all know what's happened to Verlander in recent seasons. A decline in fastball velocity, the results of a lot of pitches thrown and some injuries -- offseason surgery on his core muscles after 2013 and then a triceps strain this spring that delayed his 2015 debut until June 13. After averaging 94.8 mph on his fastball in his Cy Young/MVP season of 2011 -- and touching 101.4 -- his velocity was down to 92.3 in 2014. His ERA rose from 2.40 to 4.54, his innings pitched dropped from 251 to 206, his strikeouts declined from 9.0 per nine innings to 6.9.
When he returned in June, the early results were more of the same, with a 6.62 ERA through his first six starts, just 22 strikeouts in 34 innings and eight home runs allowed. Verlander's struggles were perhaps one reason the Tigers traded David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline, even though they were on the fringes of the wild-card race.
Verlander had started to turn things around by then, however. He allowed two runs in 16 innings in his final two starts in July. In his three previous starts entering Wednesday's game against the Angels, he'd allowed just one earned run and 11 hits in 20 innings. Against the Angels, he had his best velocity of the season, averaging 93.8 mph with his fastball and then turning it up a notch in the late innings: He blew a 96-mph fastball past Kole Calhoun for a strikeout in the seventh, hit 96 against Trout, hit 97 against Albert Pujols and then struck him out with a 95.4 mph heater that dove in on Pujols. In the eight, he twice hit 97 against C.J. Cron. Iannetta's came off a pitched clocked at 96.7 mph.
Can Verlander turn it up to 100 anymore? No, those days are in the past. But this recent string of starts suggests maybe he can still regain his ace status, that maybe his legs are finally under him again, that he's learning to pitch with diminished velocity.
That's obviously good news for the 2016 version of the Tigers. Minus Price, minus Max Scherzer, and with Anibal Sanchez's struggles, the once-vaunted rotation needs a No. 1. The trades picked up some young arms -- Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer -- that will be counted on for 2016, but young arms are still young arms. Sanchez is still under contract, and maybe new general manager Al Avila will dip into the free-agent market. But the Tigers will need a strong, healthy and productive Verlander.
The 2016 team will be in a precarious position. The core remains a win-now team of 30-somethings -- Verlander, Sanchez, Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, plus J.D. Martinez, who will be 28 next season -- but that core wasn't good enough in 2015 to carry the team, even with strong partial seasons from Price and Cespedes. If those guys start aging and the young guys don't develop, the Tigers could be entering a drought period, especially considering the big money owed to Cabrera and Verlander eats up a large chunk of the payroll.
Anyway, we have all offseason to discuss that. For one night, the Tigers' disappointing season turned bright, and Verlander was once again throwing fastballs past hitters.