Detroit — There it was, another dramatic flash of possibility. We saw it again from Justin Verlander, and we see it occasionally and emphatically from the Tigers.
Six Tigers will be in New York for the All-Star Game, more than any other team. And because he won’t be able to pitch on short rest, Verlander conducted his own All-Star show Sunday, flirting with a no-hitter. That’s what the Tigers and Verlander are doing so far — flirting with greatness, but not ready to settle down and commit to it.
The Tigers hit the All-Star break in first place after a 5-0 blanking of the Rangers before another sellout crowd. Verlander didn’t allow a hit until Mitch Moreland drilled a two-out double in the seventh, although he didn’t look unhittable. Afterward, he lamented his off-speed pitches still weren’t very good, and his fastball wasn’t fully uncorked.
This is why the Tigers remain scary, in more good ways than bad. They pile up gaudy numbers everywhere but the standings, and eventually that has to change. They’re 52-42, fifth-best in the AL and only a game-and-a-half ahead of the Indians. It’s the seventh time they’ve reached 10 games above .500, and have dropped back each time.
And yet, if Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder Torii Hunter and Jhonny Peralta hit like this, and Max Scherzer and the rest of the starters pitch like they can, look out. And if Verlander gets rolling, really, really look out.
He expects he will, and not just based on this stellar performance. He grinded through one of his toughest first halves and emerged with a 10-6 record and 3.50 ERA. If he can do that without his best stuff, imagine what’s possible.
“I know I was inconsistent, not where I want to be,” Verlander said. “But I was able to battle and put up some pretty good numbers, considering. Hopefully in the second half, things start clicking.”
Verlander more mature
Jim Leyland says the expectations are “impossible” for Verlander, and he’s probably right. But the 30-year-old right-hander happily heaps them on himself. No, he won’t be the MVP, but this is a team built for September and October, and this is a pitcher built the same way.
Verlander left after 105 pitches through seven innings with mild right leg tightness, but of course he’d have continued if the no-hitter were intact. One good sign: Verlander has been mostly healthy, even if he doesn’t dial up the 99-mph fastball as often, yet. He pitched a smarter game against the Rangers, far from overpowering. He struck out three and walked three, and like I said, did more flirting than fanning.
Verlander admits he’s learned to pace himself, and so have the veteran Tigers. It can lead to bouts of frustration, but if they survive the long season and just get in the playoffs, they become a World Series favorite simply because of Cabrera and their top-end starting pitching.
So why is Verlander confident he’ll be back at the top end?
“Just knowing me,” he said. “The will to get things right and not just be OK with OK numbers. There’s always that desire to be the best. Obviously my toughest year was 2008 (11-17 record), but I’m a much more mature pitcher now.”
It’s a more mature team too, and has proven it can handle adversity. The Tigers were 44-42 at the All-Star break last year and won the division by three games. They were 49-43 in 2011 and won by 15 games. Everyone expects them to win it again, although the Indians continue to pester and the leaky bullpen must be fixed.
Running a marathon
Leyland says mental toughness will determine the division winner, and there’s some element of that. I think pitching talent will win it, especially if Verlander returns to premier status. At some point, the Tigers have to unleash the full force of their All-Star talent, right?
If they’re holding back — or Verlander is holding back — that must end shortly after the second half starts.
“My own personal opinion — I think Justin Verlander is a ‘stuff’ guy, and I think he’s trying to learn how to become better as a pitcher,” Leyland said. “But you can’t take it so far. Some guys have to be more of a pitcher because they have a lot less stuff.”
By “stuff,” Leyland means Verlander can throw the stuffing out of the baseball, and nibbling with off-speed pitches isn’t his best option. Fair enough. But there’s also nothing wrong with trying to become a savvier pitcher who can grind through when the “stuff” isn’t at its best.
Verlander’s approach, in some ways, mirrors the Tigers.
“We got a team full of veterans who know how to prepare themselves for a marathon, and I think that’s why we play well in the second half,” Verlander said. “I could go out and probably lead the Boston Marathon for a little bit, just run as fast as I can, but I’m not gonna win it.”
The Tigers know they’ll have to pick up the pace soon. And on days like this, when Verlander flashes his stuff and three guys slug home runs, you see how suddenly they’re capable of doing it.