Henning: Flirting with no-hitter speaks to Verlander's gifts
Detroit — Power isn't a word often used in the same sentence as elegance.
But in baseball history few pitchers have been as skilled as Justin Verlander at creating new models and conventions.
And at throwing multiple career no-hitters. Or, making multiple no-hit bids.
He came within three outs of throwing his third zero-hit game Wednesday night at Comerica Park, all before Chris Iannetta stroked a 97-mph fastball, on a 2-2 count a stitch inside the left-field foul line for the only Angels base hit in a 5-0 Tigers victory.
As was the case with his two career no-hitters, what you saw Wednesday night at Comerica Park was rare power, and rare elegance — craftsmanship melded with dynamism — in only the fashion a pitcher with Verlander's extraordinary gifts can display.
He blazed fastballs, bent curveballs, deceived batters with change-ups, frustrated them with sliders, and eventually put away all but Iannetta in a portrait of pitching brilliance that came within three batters of sinking his name deeper into Tigers and baseball history.
As the innings wore on and as Verlander's all-but flawless game took shape, at a delicate pace, like an art masterpiece evolving on an easel, the Comerica Park crowd's voice rose decibel by decibel.
The crowd might as well have been on the mound with Verlander during that heart-hammering ninth as Verlander readied for three Angels batters, led by Iannetta. It was chilly at Comerica on a low-60s night. The air, already crisp with autumn, practically crackled as Verlander took the mound and stared at three batters who were between him and even more Motown lore.
He went to a 2-2 count on Iannetta, a right-handed batter. He threw him a 97-mph heater of a brand and velocity Verlander typically threw during earlier years when Cy Young Awards were either being won or nearly won by a Tigers superstar.
Iannetta ripped it on a line over third base and, for a nanosecond, a town winced knowing how close this moment would come to either ruining a Louvre piece or sustaining it.
The ball landed so tight to foul ground that chalk plumed where it hit. Verlander dropped to his haunches, a grimace on his face.
And then a crowd, crushed by what sports can offer and so quickly steal, melted into applause, whistles, and cheers for a 32-year-old wizard who has meant so much to Detroit's baseball reconstruction since he first arrived a decade ago.
A win at last
One thing at least was gained with this virtuoso. Verlander got a victory. It was only his second of the season. But he deserved so many more since he escaped the disabled list in June and pitched, often brilliantly, minus victory because of either his teammates' tough nights with the bats or, as in one infamous night at Minnesota in July, because the bullpen immolated.
Another triumph came Verlander's and the Tigers' way Wednesday.
A pitcher who has all the athleticism, all the physical discipline and might, to pitch very deeply into his 30s if not beyond, left no doubt he is this team's indefinite staff ace.
The sheer fury of his pitches Wednesday underscored why the Tigers felt comfortable 17 months ago offering him the equivalent of a $200-million contract to pitch for the remainder of the decade in Detroit.
Wednesday night's near-miss became part of a scrapbook loaded with testaments to his no-hit mastery, as well as to a series of one-hitters where, but for a ninth-inning swing by Josh Harrison or by Chris Iannetta, Verlander would be pushing Nolan Ryan territory for career no-hitters.
It doesn't matter. Not in the context of what he means to Detroit, and to the elevation he occupies as one of the game's great pitchers.
He knows as much. As does everyone else. But because of the respect and place he holds, a lot of those same folks were rooting for him to do it.
He just missed. Comerica Park's crowd, all but hugging him as he left the field, got a doffed cap in return from a pitcher who knew how exceptionally he had performed, even if a page of history was ripped away by a chalk-line batted ball in the ninth.