Wojo: Vintage JV display fuels hope for Tigers' future

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Justin Verlander said he'd be back, and more and more appeared on his way back. And then on a cool late-August night, there it was, a blast from the not-so-distant past.

Verlander is back, officially if not historically. He took a no-hitter into the ninth inning Wednesday night against the Angels, and although it escaped him by mere inches, it was the strongest statement he's made in nearly two years. The Comerica Park crowd was roaring at every at-bat in the late innings, and Verlander felt it and fed it. His fastball was hitting 97, his control was incredible, and the Angels had no shot.

This was a no-hit performance in almost every way, probably as dominant as Verlander was in his previous two no-hitters. But it takes a little luck too, and when Chris Iannetta led off the ninth by lacing a 2-2 fastball down the left-field line, the entire crowd seemed to lean hard to the left, trying to push it foul. The ball hit the chalk and history was dashed, the only downside to this night.

The Tigers clubbed the Angels 5-0 with home runs from Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos. But as we know, this season is now an epilogue, and a prologue to the next. And if this is who Verlander is again — he has allowed one earned run or less in seven of his past nine starts — the Tigers' rebound chances look considerably brighter.

"This has a special meaning because of the way the fans were treating me and reacting," Verlander said. "I know they've wanted to see me back just as bad as I have. From the sixth inning on, they were unbelievable. It really gave me goose bumps coming off the mound in the seventh."

Master on the mound

It was must-see JV again, an impressive retort to those who figured vintage Verlander was long gone. As it turns out, a foolish assumption. The core muscle surgery a year-and-a-half ago, followed by a two-month disabled-list stint this season with a triceps strain, knocked Verlander down. He said he'd get back up and he has, doing more game-plan preparation with his catcher, altering the sequencing of his pitches but still leaning on the high heat of the fastball.

He stuck out nine — including Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the seventh — and walked only two. Even more encouraging, this didn't come out of nowhere, destined to disappear. This has been building for six weeks, overshadowed by the Tigers' struggles and by Verlander's 1-6 record.

The record was partly because of poor run support, not an accurate measure of his progress. In his last nine starts, he has struck out 59 and walked 10.

"He's kind of showed he's still got Justin Verlander inside of him, and I think this was a little bit of an exclamation point," manager Brad Ausmus said. "I knew his stuff was plenty good enough. He's not 98 to 100 (mph), but he still tops out at 97, which is pretty darn good. And I knew he had four pitches he could use. I knew it was there, and it's nice to see it."

Nice, sure. Incredibly important? Absolutely.

Verlander's contract makes it impossible to escape the scrutiny, and if the Tigers are to show this was a one-season blip, he has to be a major part of the future. It's getting safer and safer to say he will.

Verlander, 32, wasn't boastful afterward, and seemed genuinely touched by the crowd support. He knows what many had said, that he'd never be capable of this again, that he was stubborn and distracted and getting older.

Instead of stroking his ego, it stoked his ego, and the fire to reclaim his status was re-lit. Now it has to stay re-lit, but the positive sign is, there was nothing fluky about this.

Doubting Thomases silenced

"You can't listen to the naysayers, you just gotta work your butt off and believe," said Verlander, who threw 112 pitches, 74 for strikes. "Baseball is a fickle game though. Anytime you think you got it, it can revert back the next start, then you find it again. I think the whole last month has been very encouraging for me, and this just kind of reaffirms that."

Rookie catcher James McCann had never seen this before, and could scarcely describe what it was like. When the hit by Iannetta (proud owner of a .188 batting average) landed fair, McCann said "my heart was ripped out."

"That's Justin Verlander, AL MVP, Cy Young Award winner, and he's worked his tail off to get back to where is right now," McCann said. "I couldn't be happier and prouder of what he's done to get to a spot like tonight."

It was riveting, right down to Iannetta's swing at a 97-mph fastball, one of the few that Verlander left in the middle of the plate. I asked him what he said to himself when he saw the white chalk fly.

"Beeeeeep," Verlander said with a smile. "Just so everyone else doesn't have to press the beep button."

The Angels were hitting the beep button all night, and the buzz in the stands was classic. This was a revelation that merely lacked the final punctuation.

During a season in which a lot has been lost, it appears the Tigers have rediscovered their ace.