September 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

The Justin Verlander of old might be back just in time

Detroit — Generally, you’d rather not lose on a ninth-inning grand slam to a team still within sniffing distance in the standings. Not a good strategy. But realistically, that’s not what mattered most to the Tigers.

Before the final ugly sight Sunday, they spotted something they desperately needed to see. Justin Verlander saw it too, like a video flashback. It was vintage, vicious Verlander in a tight game, and that’s why there was more relief than anguish.

The Indians gasped out a 4-0 victory on Mike Aviles’ grand slam off Joaquin Benoit, but the Tigers won two of three and 15 of 19 in the season series. They still have a bulky 7˝-game lead as they head to Boston.

If pennant races historically start on Labor Day, the Tigers missed a chance to essentially end one. But if Verlander truly is finding his way back, this race will be over soon enough. Somehow the Tigers’ former MVP had become a slight drag on a great rotation, but you knew it couldn’t last. It surely couldn’t last if they planned to win the World Series.

With seven shutout innings, Verlander shook off some dust and fuss. He’s had occasional stellar performances this season, but in the seventh inning of a scoreless game, he unleashed it. With a runner on third and one out, he struck out Jason Kubel on 98- and 99-mph fastballs, then induced Aviles to ground out weakly to short.

“The last couple innings were probably the closest I’ve felt to being right,” Verlander said. “Even Alex (Avila) said it looked right from behind the plate. I asked him and he said, ‘It just looked like you.’ That’s obviously a big step in the right direction. Once it clicked, it felt really good.”

Inconsistent season

Verlander has alternated forward steps and missteps in an oddly uneven season. His numbers aren’t bad — 12-10 with a 3.59 ERA — just far short of his normal dominance. He gave up four hits and two walks while striking out six Indians, and recovered nicely from another near-disastrous, 35-pitch first inning.

It’s premature to make any broad proclamations, but there seemed to be a subtle transformation as Verlander settled down and the Comerica Park crowd of 41,557 fired up. Am I making too much of one start against a scuffling opponent? Maybe. But here’s the encouraging part for the Tigers: Maybe not.

For a near-legendary workhorse, this was only the fifth time in nine starts Verlander pitched into the seventh inning.

“From his leg kick to his follow-through, it just looked fluid again,” said Avila, who has caught Verlander often enough to know. “Other times, I can see he’s fighting it. I’m sure he probably was relieved a little bit, because from the beginning of the game to the end, there was big-time improvement.”

Verlander has spent so much time over-thinking mechanics and adjustments, he was annoying himself. By firing the ol’ 99-mph heater late in the game, he showed strength and velocity aren’t the issues. He adamantly says he’s not reinventing himself, just rediscovering himself. That means the sneer and the searing fastball, although it takes more than that.

The Indians weren’t intimidated early, and did what many teams have done to Verlander. They took pitches, fouled off pitches and made him throw more pitches, but couldn’t knock him out.

“There was no question he had that determined look on his face,” Jim Leyland said. “He pitched great.”

Verlander has given himself a strict timetable — be ready by the playoffs. And on the first day of September, he pitched as well as he has in six weeks.

Ace is needed

Before the Tigers get to close-out time, they need a little more tune-up time. Miguel Cabrera missed his second straight game with an abdominal strain, although Leyland said the slugger was feeling better. The Tigers (80-57) are slightly behind the Red Sox for the best record in the AL, so there’s plenty to pursue, even as the Indians dutifully keep chasing.

As terrific as Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez have been, now is when the Tigers need Verlander too. He’s heard all the theories, that he’s aging (30), that he’s tired or distracted. He has thrown more innings than any pitcher in baseball the past three seasons, so there’s definitely a barrier — mental or mechanical — to bust through.

If he’s busting through it, his timing is pretty good and his mood is getting better.

“I’ve been very pleased with the way fans have my back,” Verlander said. “Obviously, people tend to get on Twitter looking for reasons to say mean stuff. But fans at the ballpark and around town have been fantastic, knowing I’ve been working my butt off.”

We’ll need to see more before officially declaring Verlander on his way back. But if this is the start of a rediscovery, it wouldn’t surprise anyone, especially not him.

“Lack of confidence is not in his vocabulary,” Avila said, smiling. “Skip has said he needs to be arrogant out there, needs to have some swagger, and he does.”

It was a slice of nasty nostalgia, and the Tigers hope it’s a precursor. Can they win it all without a vintage Verlander? Perhaps, but they’d rather not be forced to try.

Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings against the Indians Sunday, offering hope that he's returned to his Cy Young-like ways. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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