Verlander delivers masterpiece, Tigers prevail in 11

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Houston — Back on May 21, the Astros' Preston Tucker hit a tying, ninth-inning home run off then Tigers closer Joakim Soria.

Flash ahead to Saturday. Tucker hit another tying home run in the ninth inning, this one 421 feet off a 100 mph fastball from new Tigers closer Bruce Rondon.

Neither blast by Tucker beat the Tigers. James McCann hit a walk-off homer in the 11th in May. And the Tigers scored three times in the top of the 11th Saturday off Astros reliever Pat Neshek to rescue the win, 4-2.

What Tucker's home run did this time, though, was smudge a masterpiece by Justin Verlander.

He was in full swagger, shutting out the Astros through seven innings, pin-pointing a power fastball and mixing in just the right amount of sliders and curveballs. He allowed just three singles and two walks.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 4, Astros 2, 11 innings

"I don't really like the word vintage," he said. "I think last year was an aberration for me and I think I did a lot of work this offseason to get myself and my body in a position to pitch well again.

"I look at this as more the norm than an aberration. I don't think this was a throwback. This is the pitcher I am."

He looked, pure and simple, like an ace. He was in attack mode right from the start. Of his first 31 pitches, 26 were fastballs, and he didn't relent. He threw 107 pitches in his seven innings, 73 fastballs. And it was like he was throwing darts, placing them on the edges of the corners, as well as in the upper and lower ends of the strike zone.

"A lot of punch outs (seven), a lot of swings and misses, a lot of bad-looking swings," catcher James McCann said. "He was in control and that's what you need."

Early on, the fastball velocity ranged from 90 to 93 mph. As the game wore on, he was hitting 94, 95 and even 96. In addition, his fastball had explosive arm-side run — going in on right-handed hitters and away from left-handers.

"There's a lot that plays into it," McCann said. "He's more comfortable. He's back in a groove. The timing and mechanics are working for him again. His arm strength might have been lacking coming off the DL. He may not have been 100 percent in game shape. But he is now."

For Verlander, a well-placed fastball is still his best friend, whether it's at 92 or 98 mph.

"Early on it felt OK and as the game wore on, it started to feel better and better," he said. "I have been working a lot since coming off the DL, throwing a lot, trying to find it. I think now I am getting into my normal routine so I won't have to throw as much (between starts), just let everything recover as it should."

His strikeout of Jason Castro to end the fifth was classic. He threw Castro four fastballs. The last three were 93, 94 and 96, all with arm-side movement, all swinging strikes.

In the seventh inning, on his 105th pitch, he struck out Colby Rasmus with a 96 mph heater.

"If he keeps pitching like this, he's going to have a lot of success," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "He did attack with the fastball early. This game and the Tampa game (10 strikeouts) really stand out for me."

And to Verlander's point about it being more the norm than a throwback: In his last five starts, covering 36 innings, he's allowed seven earned runs (1.75 ERA). The Tigers, though, have scored just six runs with Verlander on the mound.

"We won the game," said Verlander, who still has just one win this season. "That's the important thing."

The Tigers managed a run and four hits off Astros starter Collin McHugh. The run was a disputed one in the fifth.

Anthony Gose walked with two outs and stole second. Ian Kinsler hit a sinking liner to left that Preston Tucker made a diving play on.

It was originally ruled a catch, but Ausmus challenged and won. Replays showed clearly that Tucker lost control of the ball on his dive. The replay umpire in New York awarded Gose home plate.

"I didn't think with two outs they'd place him back at third," Ausmus said.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch disagreed and was ejected for arguing that Gose should have been placed at third.

Jose Iglesias started the three-run 11th with an infield single and Miguel Cabrera worked a walk. Victor Martinez, who started at first base, doubled to the gap in left-center to score Iglesias.

J.D. Martinez and Tyler Collins followed with RBI singles.

After Al Alburquerque pitched a scoreless 10th, Neftali Feliz gave up a two-out RBI single to Jed Lowrie in the 11th before retiring Carlos Gomez for his first save as a Tiger.

All's well that ends well, at least on this night.