Detroit -- It used to be, when Justin Verlander pitched, nothing else mattered. It was gasp, gasp, gasp, gas, gas, gas. The power display was awe-inspiring, easily the main attraction.
Verlander remains fully capable of eliciting awe, don't worry about that. But power is on display just about every night now for the Tigers, from practically any pitcher and any slugger. The Tigers are clear about their formula — a deep starting rotation and a deep batch of hitters who hit it deep.
When Verlander pitches well and is somewhat upstaged, you know the Tigers are rolling. They won their fifth straight Tuesday night, clubbing the Twins, 6-1, and for all the obsession about the speed of Verlander's fastball, did anyone clock the flight of the latest Prince Fielder home run?
With a mighty uppercut, Fielder blasted the ball into the right-field seats, and it was in the air for approximately two seconds. That was just long enough for Miguel Cabrera to take a couple steps on the basepath before turning and pointing in the direction of the ball.
The Tigers clubbed three home runs — Fielder, Cabrera and Alex Avila — and if something was missing from the season's sluggish start, it was power. Well, it's here, as the Tigers have scored 35 runs in the five-game streak and risen to 15-10. Verlander has been holding back too, but he tipped it up to 96 mph or so a few times.
When more is needed, Verlander figures it will be there.
"I know where I'm at, and I feel it's gotten a little bit better every start," he said. "I threw a lot of innings last year and was basically three weeks behind coming into spring training, on purpose. But I learned a valuable lesson in 2008, and that's not trying to create velocity the wrong way. You start trying to throw hard and it creates bad habits that are hard to fix. I know it's a little down, but I'm confident it'll get there."
Best April yet
Verlander went seven innings to improve to 3-2, and his five-hit, eight-strikeout performance was impressive, outside of a rocky second inning. The Tigers starters have set the whiff bar so high, Verlander isn't interested in trying to top it, at least not yet.
This team is highly touted because it has power sources all over the place. For all the talk of the top four in the batting order, the top four in the rotation have been incredible. Jim Leyland gets to deal from a hand of aces these days, from Verlander to Anibal Sanchez (franchise-record 17 strikeouts last outing) to Max Scherzer (10 strikeouts last outing) to Doug Fister (4-0 with a 2.38 ERA).
The Tigers wow with their hitting but they'll win with their pitching. This was the sixth straight game their starter pitched into the seventh inning, which helps protect the bullpen. Verlander developed a blister on his right thumb in his last appearance, but if anyone's concerned about him, that's only because his standard is so high.
"He juiced it up to 95-96, and that's pretty good," Leyland said. "If people are talking about a guy going out this early in the season throwing 100 miles per hour, I'm not sure that'd be what the doctor ordered. He showed when he wants it, it's in the tank."
Actually, Verlander capped his best April, finishing with a 1.83 ERA. And while he admits he enjoys putting on a show, he doesn't mind watching the display from others.
The Tigers lead the league with eight three-run homers, thus confirming their intentions: See ball, mash ball. Cabrera, the reigning MVP and Triple Crown winner, has 28 RBIs, the most in April by a Tigers since at least 1921. He hit his fourth home run and Fielder drilled his seventh, after beating the Twins the night before with a three-run shot.
The outfield fence is no defense for those blasts, and the sluggers are heating up. This is where the Tigers' across-the-board talent can have a calming effect. Fielder has Cabrera in front of him, and Cabrera has Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson in front of him.
Same thing with the pitching. The starters sometimes jab at each other — the other day, Scherzer playfully called Verlander's strikeout total "average" — and push without pushing too hard.
"Who says I can't still go for the big strikeout?" Verlander said with a grin. "When you get four or five guys rolling in a starting staff, there's going to be competition, guys chirping back and forth, but it's all in good fun."
The Tigers' talent is unmistakable, especially on nights like this. Their power is undeniable, especially on nights like this.
"You're not gonna be hot the whole year, but our talent is gonna take over, and I feel we're starting to show that now," Verlander said. "We got a lot of veterans and they have numbers on the back of their bubblegum cards that say they're gonna do this just about every year."
The point is, it's early, too early to worry about the speed of progress. Verlander fully plans to end up right where he's been, as fast or as long as it takes to get there.