Chicago — Give them credit, those White Sox customers who decided for whatever reason Friday — bad team, Labor Day weekend, football distractions — to ignore U.S. Cellular Field and a duel against the Tigers.
It wasn’t much fun if you were among those 17,071 who came to see the White Sox and not a team from Detroit led by Justin Verlander.
The Tigers drilled the Sox, 7-1, on a breezy evening that featured none of the rain that had been forecast, a good thing when both teams were to return in a few hours for Saturday’s day-night doubleheader.
“That’s what we were kind of banking on,” said Brad Ausmus, the Tigers manager who was thinking about another weekend of non-stop innings, courtesy of makeup games, and what it might do to a bullpen that needed Verlander’s help.
Detroit earned gold, silver, and bronze medals in taking a game, in all phases, which helped keep the heat on first-place Kansas City — whose loss to Cleveland trimmed their lead over the second-place Tigers to a half-game in the AL Central — and allowed the Tigers to stay in front of rapidly warming Cleveland.
Verlander, who got his share of breaks early, calmed himself and pitched seven innings of steady, strong baseball, with a brand of pitch mix and pitch precision he has been fighting to devise as he deals with, well, being 31.
“Those middle innings felt good,” said Verlander, whose record is again moving north (13-12) and whose ERA is also easing (4.68). “I was able to execute my fastball and then throw the off-speed stuff where I wanted to.”
He allowed nine hits, with four of those coming in the first two innings when the Sox might have scored more had some bad baserunning (Alejandro De Aza getting thrown out at third) and bad luck (Ezequiel Carrera’s sprinting grab of a liner by Carlos Sanchez) not helped Verlander shift into his mid-innings cruise.
“The first half he was good,” Ausmus said, appraising Verlander’s night. “And the second half was very good.”
Verlander’s frat brothers also kicked in Friday. The Tigers ruined the White Sox with a five-run fourth that featured four unearned runs, thanks to two awkward errors by White Sox slugger and first baseman Jose Abreu, whose talents are listed in order.
“There were a couple of errors,” Ausmus said, “but you’ve still got to take advantage of those errors. It gave us a little cushion.”
The Tigers slapped 13 hits, with J.D. Martinez owning three of them on a double and two singles. Ian Kinsler drove in two runs with a double and a fielder’s choice RBI. Torii Hunter had two hits and two RBIs, Carrera two hits and an RBI, Victor Martinez two hits, and Alex Avila an RBI double. Nick Castellanos, who doubled, knocked in a run on a fielder’s choice.
It made Verlander’s evening more free-wheeling as he continues to adjust and smooth and re-train muscles that have been throwing a baseball one way for so many years and now must accommodate a man in his 30s.
His glowing number applied to innings: seven of them, a huge beachhead for the Tigers pitching staff when Saturday’s doubleheader, complete with a first big league peek at left-hander Kyle Ryan, could grind up Ausmus’ bullpen.
Verlander was just as slick with an old trick — strikeouts. He had eight, which came on a sassy series of fastballs (one at 96 wiped out Tyler Flowers), change-ups (five consecutive changes put down Conor Gillaspie), curveballs, and sliders.
Verlander walked two, both in his jumpy first inning, and thereafter was as smooth with his control as with his four-pitch quiver.
“Just got a better feel,” said Verlander, who thought his curveball was as good as it has been this season. “I got some big outs with it.”
He was excused after 116 pitches, which was fine with a manager whose starter helped the Tigers move all the deeper into a turbo-charged divisional race, complete with fatigue factors and physical breakdowns that have been particularly cruel on Detroit’s belted, bruised bullpen.
Jim Johnson took care of the eighth for the Tigers, minus a hit. Patrick McCoy, who would not have been appearing in the ninth were it not for a six-run lead, got himself into trouble that Al Alburquerque soon limited.
After two batters got aboard with one out, Alburquerque loped to the mound and got back-to-back ground balls to knock off the White Sox, move the Tigers to 73-60 on the season, and at least for a few hours, stave off the rain and Saturday’s potential pitching predicaments.
“No one got overextended,” said Ausmus, who isn’t sure he’ll have the same reflection after today’s second consecutive Saturday of two-game sets.