Detroit — There seemed a chance Monday, albeit slight, that Justin Verlander would slip into Comerica Park and pretend this was just another game for a big-league ace as focused as Verlander invariably is on destroying opposing batters and teams.
Uh, scratch that.
The man is too human, too tied to his Detroit past, which took on a kind of final, official transition Monday when Verlander and his Houston Astros whipped the Tigers, 3-2.
“The fans here, they never disappoint,” Verlander said in his new Comerica quarters, the visiting clubhouse, after he had showered and changed into black jeans and a dark blue shirt.
This was no machine pitching Monday. This was a man of red blood and clear emotions who twice fought tears before the game as he strolled across the outfield from the bullpen and caught a video tribute the Tigers deftly had put together. And then again as he stepped toward the dugout and got another standing salute from 19,711 following one of those Verlander standard-issue starts: seven innings, six hits, two runs, one walk, and of course 10 strikeouts, as he won his 203rd big-league game.
“They appreciate, and I appreciate, everything we did here,” he said of Monday night’s hardcore Tigers turnout, which might have been stronger had the Lions not been tussling across the street.
Verlander finished clasping a watch onto his wrist and admitted this had been an evening that for him “was like a playoff game.”
That made all kinds of sense. Detroit is where he grew into a pitcher who someday will have his name slapped in big white letters against that brown brick wall in distant left-center field.
It was in Detroit that he pitched for 13 seasons, unveiling for a baseball town that knows its game a satchel of spellbinding talents, all while enduring the occasional blips and blackouts baseball delivers to mortals.
“Fighting through a lot of stuff,” he said of those rare times when he either wasn’t feeling his usual bionic self, or for a stretch, not pitching as he typically has pitched, past and present.
All those years here. The 380 starts. The two no-hitters. The playoff showdowns.
The personal color, too, that matched pitching skills so dynamic.
He was going to pretend Monday that this was something he would flip, like a pored-over book page, and simply consign to his past?
Minutes before the 6:10 p.m. first pitch, he walked across Comerica’s outfield turf, to Houston’s dugout along the first-base line, as the Tigers greeted him with scoreboard video snippets from his virtuoso moments here.
Verlander stopped on the right-field grass, still moist from an all-day rain. He gazed at the scoreboard.
He took a deep breath and exhaled, his cheeks expanding like two balloons. He finished his breath and tipped his cap.
And then he composed himself to pitch a baseball game indistinguishable from so many of those hundreds of days and nights when he was the face of Detroit’s nearly regular playoff years.
Afterward, in the clubhouse, he talked about how it “was really weird” staying in the Townsend Hotel, only a few blocks from the Birmingham condo in which he lived during his final years with the Tigers.
But for all the sudden dislocation, the disruption of moving to another city, to another team, separating from everything he knew and loved about his 13-season baseball address, it was good, he said Monday, that a deadline trade last August happened.
It was good because Verlander needed to be somewhere where they were still playing baseball in October. And that wasn’t going to be Detroit. Not anytime soon. The Tigers, meanwhile, needed as much new flesh (three solid prospects) as a superstar could bring on the trade mart.
“Personally, I think it was the right time to go,” he said Monday night. “I tried to make the best decision for me and for the (Tigers) organization.
“We have very intelligent fans here,” he said, maybe not noticing that he used, touchingly, the word “we,” while explaining “how much harder these fans and this organization made my decision.”
It’s why he waited nearly until the clock ran out last Aug. 31 before he OK’d a trade that required his sign-off.
He knew what could happen in Houston, and it did, as he and the Astros mowed down their October antagonists — the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers — to win a World Series a couple of nights before he and Kate Upton got married in Italy.
It was good for everyone, Verlander kept saying late Monday. That, of course, is true as long as you brush aside Tigers sentimentalists who never quite will believe Verlander is elsewhere.
It was clear, as he talked in that clubhouse down the tunnel from where he all but lived for 13 seasons, that it wasn’t only the Motown rooters who haven’t quite let go of a relationship so deep.
As he left the field, following his seven innings of artistry, Comerica’s fans stood and cheered. Verlander walked toward Houston’s dugout and greeted them with a raised left arm, then a right-arm and glove he stuck into the air, and then one more hat-tip.
The sentimentalists at that moment included a 35-year-old pitcher who hasn’t yet fully departed Detroit and who, deep in his soul, never will.