August 7, 2013 at 1:13 am

John Niyo

Tigers ace Justin Verlander returns to vintage form just in time

Cleveland — They limp and they lumber, but they don’t seem to know how to lose.

And now that the Tigers finally have found a winning groove, on Tuesday night — a day after losing one teammate to a suspension — they welcomed back another they’d dearly missed.

At long last, the old Justin Verlander was on the mound again.

“What do you mean the old Justin Verlander?” he asked, smiling after an overpowering performance in Tuesday night’s 5-1 win over the Indians at Progressive Field. “I’m the same guy.”

Same guy, yes. Different results, though. And while the Tigers’ ace hadn’t exactly gone AWOL, even his manager admits it was nice to see him again.

“I mean, that’s the Justin Verlander we know,” Jim Leyland said. “And I hope we see a lot more of that.”

If they do, we might’ve seen the last of this division race with the Indians, who have to be a bit demoralized after the results the last two nights — blowing Monday’s game in the ninth, and then getting blown away Tuesday in a matchup of the teams’ pitching aces.

The Tigers have won 10 in a row now — and 14 of their last 15 — to go from eight games above .500 to within a game of the Red Sox for the best record in the American League. The winning streak is the longest since 2011, when they won 12 in a row to run away and hide in the A.L. Central.

And coincidentally, that’s how far back Verlander went to find his old form this past week.

Film work pays off

Still grumbling and fumbling after another bullpen session over the weekend, he and pitching coach Jeff Jones again watched some film from his MVP and Cy Young season looking for clues. And what they found was a difference in his landing foot on his delivery.

A few inches too far to the right, it appeared. And after a few innings Tuesday night, well, everyone in the ballpark could see he was on to something.

“The third inning, I told Jonesy, ‘He’s got it today,’ ” catcher Alex Avila said. “He had that look in his eye.”

And so did the Indians, with Verlander on the attack all night, easily finding his velocity and — thanks to the adjustment in his delivery — finally controlling it. Down and away to right-handed hitters, down and in against lefties. As Avila explained with a laugh, “When you’ve got a guy locating 98 mph, in and out, up and down, I mean, that’s really tough to hit.” It makes that nasty curveball — also as good as it has been all season, Verlander said — even tougher to handle, too.

Verlander did give up hard hits to three of the first five batters he faced Tuesday, falling behind 1-0 in the process. But then he allowed just one more baserunner — Michael Bourn singled with one out in the sixth — the rest of the night.

The heat is on

He struck out Ryan Raburn in the bottom of the fifth with consecutive 98- and 99-mph fastballs, then ripped off four more 98-mph heaters to get Lonnie Chisenhall. He hit triple digits twice in the sixth. And after striking out Raburn again to end the seventh, Verlander, who’d thrown 106 pitches at that point, had little trouble talking Leyland into sending him back out to the mound for one more inning.

“I just told him, ‘Hey, I want this eighth,’ ” said Verlander, who’d pitched eight full innings only once all season — back in late June.

Leyland agreed, though the manager let him know if he allowed a baserunner he’d be done. Verlander didn’t, of course, needing just six pitches to complete another 1-2-3 inning and finish his night with seven strikeouts and, for the first time all season, no walks.

“Kind of everything I’ve been searching for, it was there today,” said Verlander, who’d walked five in his last outing and allowed 12 earned runs in the two before that.

That’s no guarantee he won’t struggle again. But it’s that first step that’s often the hardest, right?

And after all the time and effort Verlander has invested in this season-long search — “I can’t work any harder than I have,” he said — well, it sure felt good to find himself.

“Obviously,” Verlander added, “I’m pleased with the results.”

Tigers starter Justin Verlander, here pitching in the first inning Tuesday, raised his record to 12-8 after earning the victory in a masterpiece performance. / Mark Duncan/Associated Press
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