Detroit — For the second time in a week, Justin Verlander pitched in “possibly his last game ever as a Detroit Tiger.”
But, even though the odds have grown increasingly long against the Tigers finding a suitable trade partner without having to eat a too-large portion of the $78 million owed to him over the next three years, even with the few teams that could afford him apparently moving on to other free agent starters — when it comes to the trade deadline, you never say never.
At least that’s how Verlander approached his start against the Astros Sunday, and that’s why, after grinding through six shutout innings in the Tigers 13-1 romp, he tipped his cap in acknowledgment of the standing ovation that rang down from the fans at Comerica Park.
“I was a little remiss that I didn’t do that last time,” he said. “Just in case. You never know. This time, I wanted to make sure I acknowledged them. Because I appreciate them; they’ve always had my back.”
Verlander, who can veto any trade, understands how difficult he is to trade, especially for the team he has served as the ace and face of the franchise for nearly a decade. He understands that this close to the Monday deadline, he’s likely to still be a Tiger on Tuesday.
“The trade deadline can be a crazy thing,” he said. “Teams can come out of the woodwork sometimes. Or something gets reignited that hadn’t been there. You just never know. I just tried to keep it status quo the whole time and try not to pay too much attention to it.”
Bottom line, he said, it’s a win-win situation for him.
“That’s a good assessment and I guess that makes it easier on me personally,” Verlander said. “I definitely wouldn’t be upset by staying here in Detroit. And, again, because I can control my own destiny, I wouldn’t be somewhere I don’t want to go.”
His performance Sunday was a study in poise and grit. The Astros, who possess the best road record in baseball (38-15), battled him. They worked deep counts, they worked three walks and had eight runners on the bases through the first four innings.
“I kind of felt like a boxer with my hands up the whole time,” Verlander joked.
But he never relented. He got Derek Fisher to ground out with the bases loaded in the third. The Astros put the first two runners on in the third with a bunt and a bloop. Verlander bowed his neck and struck out Evan Gattis with a 98-mph fastball, then got Marwin Gonzalez and Brian McCann on infield pop ups.
In the fourth, he got Jose Altuve to fly out with two runners on.
After that, he got seven straight outs and earned a rousing standing ovation from the Comerica Park crowd, which he acknowledged with a tip of his cap.
“Lot of pitches,” he said. “It was really a grind. Thankfully I was able to have a couple quick innings, which is what I’d been searching for. I was at least able to get through six.”
He was at 90 pitches through four innings — it was a 1-0 game at that point — and he still managed to blow through the fifth and sixth in 10 pitches each.
“He’s still throwing 95 and above and he’s still throwing four pitches for strikes,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s still punching guys out (six Sunday). His pitch count was up, but he’s been known to go over 120 and be throwing 95 and up right to the end.”
Of his 110 pitches, 66 were fastballs. And they were lively, from 95 to 98 mph. He got seven swings and misses and nine called strikes with his fastball, according to MLB’s Baseball Savant site.
“We know what he’s capable of,” said Justin Upton, who had a monster day with a grand slam and a career-high tying six RBIs. “He’s a competitor. He prepares for every start. He goes out there and grinds. And today was a sign of that. It’s fun to play behind him when he’s pitching that way. We’ve seen it before, and we saw it today.”
It was 3-0 when Verlander left. It was 6-0 before the end of the sixth. The Tigers would pound out 15 hits, and score eight runs off the Astros' bullpen. In the series, they scored 14 runs off the Astros' 'pen.
“It was nice to see the bats come alive,” Ausmus said. “We have some guys that are below their norms as far as production. People still think I am crazy, but in my mind, the guys that are tracking below their career norms are going to bounce back — even if it’s only for two months.”
Upton had four hits, including a two-run double in the sixth and a grand slam off reliever Tony Sipp that capped a five-run seventh inning.
"He's been great for us all year," Verlander said. "This was just an exclamation point on the end of a great season. It was a lot of fun to see."
James McCann, who has a career-best nine-game hitting streak and boosted his average to .242, had three hits including his 10th home run — a two-run shot off Astros first baseman Tyler White who pitched the eighth inning.
Miguel Cabrera had a single and a double, both off the wall in left, and knocked in a run. Jose Iglesias had two more hits and an RBI.
“We’re not folding up shop,” Ausmus said. “We won a series in Minnesota before coming home and getting our butts kicked by Kansas City. But we won the series here and rebounded. Just keep winning series, that’s the only way we can look at it.”
This was the first time the Astros lost consecutive games since June 11-13, and it’s the first road series they’ve lost since April 15.
Ausmus is among those who don’t believe Verlander is getting traded.
“I think he’s a Tiger at heart,” Ausmus said. “Whether he gets traded or not, I think he will look back on his career and say, ‘I’m a Detroit Tiger.’ Regardless of what happens, the bulk of his career and the prime years of his career was spent here.
“But quite frankly, I think he’s going to be here on Tuesday. The fans will have another chance to watch him pitch.”