Wojo: Verlander flirts with no-hitter, stirs memories of dominance

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the fading light of a rocky season, this is what you get — glimpses of past glory and glimmers of the future, all shrouded in uncertainty.

And in case you’d forgotten, this is what you still can get from Justin Verlander. In a reprisal of dominant old times, the Tigers’ longtime ace did the no-no flirt again, without the same stir and stakes, but tantalizing nevertheless.

Verlander didn’t surrender a hit until two out in the sixth, when the Pirates’ Josh Bell bounced a hard grounder past diving third baseman Nicholas Castellanos. Could Castellanos have made the play? It would’ve taken a terrific effort, so it clearly was a hit, not an error. But it compounded the mixed emotions of the gem by Verlander, who threw eight one-hit innings in the Tigers’ 10-0 victory.

After struggling the first half of the season, he’s posted a 1.96 ERA in his last seven starts, and this was his second straight brilliant one. He walked three and struck out six as the Pirates rarely hit the ball hard. Verlander finished with a vintage flourish in the eighth, hitting 97 with his fastball and striking out two, and waved his cap as he left the mound to a boisterous ovation from the crowd of 28,902.

“I do feel I can be a dominant pitcher, it’s not like I have to think my way through games,” Verlander, 34, said. “I look at my stuff right now and it’s as good as it’s been, as good as it was last year, as good as it’s been in years.”

The day began with continued murmurs about Verlander’s future, and ended with reasons he’s hard to deal and hard to keep. If you were in a whimsical mood, you might have billed it as another possible Comerica Park farewell for Verlander, except that it almost assuredly wasn’t. He did clear revocable waivers, which means he could be traded if he agreed to it, and if the Tigers located a desperate contender they couldn’t find at the July 31 deadline, and if money magically no longer was a huge obstacle.

The Astros, with the best record in the AL, reportedly are still poking around, after they did little to bolster a possible championship run. There’s pressure on Houston to do more, and this performance could make it more tempting. There’s also been pressure on Tigers GM Al Avila to do more to accelerate the rebuild.

Still got it

The only pressure on Verlander was to keep showing fans (and reluctant teams) what they missed. And yes, this looks a lot like his stretch run a year ago, when he figured things out and nearly won the Cy Young.

“People are so quick to think pitchers and baseball players are robots, and they write you off because you have a bad stretch,” Verlander said. “I was searching for my mechanics from Day 1. And then I finally thought I found it, and since then, it’s been a drastic improvement.”

There’s no such thing as squandered excellence, no matter what a team’s record is. The Pirates are still in the middle of the NL Central race, so there’s no diminishing what Verlander did, and is doing again. This was the first time all season he pitched into the eighth, and his slider got progressively stronger before he exited at 113 pitches. He’s 8-7 and his ERA dipped to 3.97, and he has to be making people consider that he’s still capable of big things, whether it’s this season or next.

Understand, Verlander has never expressed a desire to be traded, although if he harbored hopes of hopping aboard a contender, it’s too bad this run didn’t come earlier. If the Tigers thought they had a chance to unload his contract ($56 million guaranteed beyond this season), this probably came too late.

“I think everyone knew (dominance) was still in there because his stuff was still there, the velocity was still there,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “It’s kind of like a couple years ago, he’s really showing he’s still got the Justin Verlander stuff of old.”

Verlander said he started to think about the no-no in the fifth and sixth innings, and was prepared to crank it up if it were intact in the seventh. But Bell slapped the hit that curled away from Castellanos, who got his glove on the ball and saw it trickle away for a double.

“Just a hard-hit ball from a lefty,” Castellanos said. “It kind of sliced away from me, and I dove and missed it. Pretty mad at the whole situation.”

Protecting Fulmer

It was a compelling sequence in baseball’s dog days, as the Tigers snapped a four-game losing streak to climb to 52-61. Glimpses and glimmers, past and present. Ian Kinsler slugged his 11th home run, while he also reportedly is on revocable waivers. It’s a common practice this time of year as teams gauge potential suitors, but Kinsler has a 10-team no-trade clause, and prime candidate Milwaukee is on the list.

There isn’t much the Tigers and GM Al Avila can do except play it out, passing time. One thing they can do is plan for — and protect — the future, and if that means giving star righthander Michael Fulmer a long rest, they should. Like, perhaps even the rest of the season.

Fulmer played catch Wednesday for the first time since landing on the 10-day disabled list last week with right elbow nerve inflammation and numbness in his fingers, and afterward said he felt fine. Ausmus said surgery was a last resort, and neither the club nor Fulmer seems overly concerned. He might even make a start next week. Fulmer said he’s dealt with the issue for years, and plans to pitch through it. The Tigers plan to let him, for now.

“I don’t expect him to have any problems,” Ausmus said. “He’s been dealing with this to some degree for a couple years after every start. The only way we’ll find out if it’s gonna affect him is having him go out there and pitch.”

You’re entitled to gulp hard upon hearing even the whispered hint of surgery, although it apparently isn’t a ligament issue or a long-term issue. But this is the tricky part when a team drops out of contention. How far do you look ahead and how long can you look back?

The Tigers got a glimpse the previous night at 22-year-old third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who was acquired from the Cubs in the Justin Wilson trade. Candelario singled in his first at-bat, then was sent back to Toledo as Jose Iglesias returned from bereavement leave.

Fans want to see more of the young guys, understandably so, but the Tigers also need to see more of guys like Castellanos, 25. His defense is suspect — no matter what you think of the difficulty of the sixth-inning play — but he also had three hits and drove in five runs. The Tigers are hunting for revelations, from new players and veteran players.

Perhaps they’ve learned you can’t rush the future. On a night heavy with nostalgia, Verlander showed you can’t easily forget the past.


Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski