Vintage Verlander puts clamps on Rays

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

In step with becoming a more polished pitcher, Justin Verlander has gotten even better at the diplomat’s role.

He showed Wednesday his pitching skills were still intact in an eight-inning, 10-strikeout trophy of a performance that helped the Tigers beat the Rays, 2-1, and put the brakes on a four-game losing streak.

And, as he stood in the visitor’s clubhouse, dressed in snazzy brown suit, shirt, tie, and posh brown shoes, he talked at length about his team, and how it might benefit, either way, from trade-deadline strategies.

He went from threading fastballs to spinning silken words. And all before Tigers front-office chief Dave Dombrowski ended the suspense by announcing Detroit would be offering for sale its prime-time free agents.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 2, Rays 1

The group includes David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, which means the Tigers are looking beyond this season and, realistically, past any serious October playoff plans.

“I think this is a tough decision for ownership and Dave,” Verlander said after a brilliant, fastball-inspired pitching clinic that gave a one-time Tigers ace his first victory of 2015.

“If you look at this team, we haven’t been healthy one day this year — not one day,” he said, ticking off an infirmed list that began with his two-month absence, as well as injuries that knocked out Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera. “I think it’s really tough to evaluate the team based on those facts.

“How good are we? I don’t know. But we haven’t been on the field.”

A pitcher who knows he is under contract through the remainder of this decade, and who wants his days ahead to be as bright as playoff seasons from the past, allowed this gentle caveat:

“Honestly,” he said, looking at the trade deadline’s dual sides, “I don’t think I’d be surprised, either way.”

What wasn’t at issue Wednesday was Verlander’s mastery. He was a blend of the old power-pitching dynamo and newer, more sage 32-year-old who buries his nose in scouting reports, hunting for a strategic edge against hitters.

He was dart-shooting fastballs that generally cruised from 93-95 mph and hitting specific spots. He stirred in a steady mix of secondary pitches, with his slider becoming more and more a Verlander staple.

His first inning was a Wednesday preview: three strikeouts against the first three Rays batters: two on 93 mph fastballs, a third on an 88-mph slider.

Verlander was matching Rays prodigy Chris Archer inning for inning as Archer vaporized Tigers batters, taking a perfect game into the seventh. That is, until the fifth inning, when Verlander left a slider over the plate’s midsection and watched Asdrubal Cabrera drop it into the right-field seats to give the Rays a 1-0 lead.

It was the only run he allowed before departing after eight innings and 107 pitches. The Rays got four hits, three of them singles in the eighth that produced zero runs.

“His preparation and focus the last couple of games has been outstanding,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s really intensely looking into what hitters can, and can’t hit, and attacking them at their weakest spots. Today’s probably the best game I’ve seen him pitch in a long time.”

Verlander acknowledged he gleans scouting reports for every morsel of information he can weave into his pitch package.

“I’m paying more attention,” he said, “but also blending in (hitters’) strengths and weaknesses.”

Jeff Jones, the Tigers pitching coach, agrees it’s simply a matter of a pitching superstar growing into a more seasoned craftsman who can yet be an ace.

“Absolutely,” Jones said. “We talked a couple of starts ago. He, Brad and I talked about him pitching more with all of his pitches. And he’s doing that — change-ups to right-handers, sliders to left-handers.

“He’s been in the big leagues so long, hitters see patterns. We’re trying to keep him out of those patterns.”

Error sparks Tigers

Wednesday’s game looked, for 6 1/3 innings, as if it might be historic: a perfect game, which is what Archer was spinning with one out in the seventh.

But when Jose Iglesias hit a slow grounder to the infield’s left side, he had an infield hit. And in a game the Rays led 1-0, Archer no longer was worrying about perfection. He needed to vanquish any thoughts of a Tigers rally, just as he had been torching batters with a devastating fastball-slider combination.

It didn’t happen. With one out, and Iglesias on first, Cespedes smacked a lovely double-play grounder to Cabrera at short. Cabrera gloved the ball and began an easy relay to second base — until he dropped the ball.

Now, two were aboard with one out.

J.D. Martinez followed with a hard single through the hole between third base and shortstop, which scored Iglesias to tie the game.

Nick Castellanos then ripped a liner that caromed off the glove of a leaping Cabrera and bounced into left field, scoring Cespedes.

That quickly, the Tigers had two unearned runs, a 2-1 lead, and were on their way to victory.

“Quite frankly,” Ausmus said, reflecting on Archer’s power-pitching virtuoso, “the only thing going through my mind while watching him pitch the first three or four innings was Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game.”

Ausmus was a victim on two of those 20 strikeouts May 6, 1998, when the Cubs beat the Astros, 2-0, in Wood’s record-setting performance.

“It (Archer’s solo) was as good of stuff as I’ve seen in a long time,” Ausmus said.

Tigers catcher James McCann had nearly blown up Archer’s perfect-game bid in the sixth when he drove a liner to deep center field. But just as it was about to carom against the center-field wall, Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier turned, leaped, and with his back three-quarters to the infield, snagged McCann’s drive.

Archer’s pitching combination Wednesday was a deadly 1-2 punch of high-90s fastballs, coupled with a slider that could reach 92 mph.

“You’ve got to choose one — you can’t hit both,” McCann said of Archer’s pitches. “I think that’s what guys were doing the third time around.”

Archer, 26, was on this year’s American League All-Star team. His season numbers are remarkable: 173 strikeouts and 107 hits in 141 2/3 innings.

And yet, the Tigers won on a day when Archer was eight outs from perfection.

“This crazy game,” said Alan Trammell, the Tigers front-office assistant who is filling in this week as first-base coach, “if you figure it out, let me know.”