September 30, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Justin Verlander comes through at most crucial time

Tigers starter Justin Verlander threw 129 pitches to pick up the victory Tuesday night. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Detroit

This is when seasons are defined and careers are shaped. This is when the best have to deliver, or you've got no shot.

The Tigers were teetering, no doubt about it. And then in the biggest game of the year, their best stepped up and saved the season. Am I being overly dramatic? Not really.

Justin Verlander pitched with nasty feistiness Tuesday night, and that's where it started for the Tigers, just a few hours after their toughest loss of the season. Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez had the big early hits and the Tigers temporarily quelled gigantic pressure with a 6-5 victory over the Twins, after dropping the opener of the doubleheader, 3-2 in 10 innings.

Amid incredible tension on a riveting day, the Tigers used a reliable baseball formula -- trust your stuff and lean on your best.

They're not looking for sudden heroes these days. They're looking for hits and horses. What Verlander did was take the mounting danger and toss it right back on the Twins, who ended the day as it began -- two games behind.

What Cabrera did, slugging a monstrous home run in the second inning, and what Ordonez did, with a two-run double in the third, was relieve the pressure before it became unbearable. And I guarantee, someone will have to do the same tonight and Thursday, because with Eddie Bonine and Nate Robertson starting the final two games of the series for the Tigers, the Twins have the pitching edge with Carl Pavano and Scott Baker.

Keeping the faith

It's getting later and later, and every pitch and every swing could be the one that turns a pennant race. If you were part of the 30,240 at Comerica Park, you felt it. The crowd kept rising and cheering each Verlander strikeout (eight in all, no walks), and when he gutted through the eighth inning and finished off a 129-pitch performance, the Tigers were breathing semi-normally again.

This is the only way they're going to win this thing, because the Twins are relentlessly pesky. Jim Leyland knows he needs his best, which is why he left Verlander in to face Michael Cuddyer with two outs and the tying run on second in the eighth.

Leyland stalked to the mound, talked to Verlander for about eight seconds, then went back to the dugout as the crowd roared. Four pitches later, Verlander got Cuddyer to bounce weakly to third.

"I didn't have to say a word," Verlander (18-9) said. "(Leyland) said, 'This is your guy. Go get him.' That was it. I love it. It shows a lot of faith."

A lot of faith and a lot of guts, although as Leyland noted, it's not like he had anyone better than Verlander in the bullpen. This race still feels like it's going through the weekend, because the Twins are 12-3 in their past 15 games and have a knack for timely hits. It's not like Verlander shut them down. He held them off, and that's all the Tigers are trying to do right now.

"The Twins won't go away, we know that," Leyland said. "And we won't either. This is two really good teams really going at it."

Every hit counts

It helped that Cabrera got the offense going, and when Brandon Inge drilled a two-run single in the fifth, the lead was 5-0. But it wasn't over, and it won't be over unless the Tigers find a few more clutch hits.

In these games, every hit is a clutch hit, every pitch is a clutch pitch, every bunt is a clutch bunt. In the heat -- and the chill -- of a pennant race, every little thing is dissected.

Oh, the drama. In the Tigers' crushing first-game loss, Brandon Lyon threw two wild pitches in the decisive 10th inning. He'd tossed one wild pitch all year. The Tigers left seven runners on base in the first four innings of that game and wasted a tremendous outing by Rick Porcello.

After the opener, Leyland used the word "haunted" several times. The Tigers were haunted for half a day, and have been hunted for four-and-a-half months, but all it takes to change their perspective is one outstanding performance -- often by Verlander or Cabrera.

"I didn't try to do anything extra special, but I knew we had to win," Verlander said. "I knew I could do it (in the eighth). It's Adrenaline and the situation and God-given talent. I don't know how else to explain it."

He didn't have to say a word. In the biggest game, the Tigers gave a pointed response, with tough pitching and clutch hitting. Trust their stuff? In the next two showdowns, the Tigers' best will be needed more than ever.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

More Bob Wojnowski