Detroit – So, what was Justin Verlander thinking when Chris Iannetta’s line drive leading off the ninth inning kicked up chalk down the left-field line, spoiling his bid for a third career no-hitter?
“Beeeep,” he said. “I will save you guys the trouble of having to hit the beep button.”
That lead-off double by Iannetta was the only hit Verlander allowed in a complete-game, 5-0 shutout of the Angels Wednesday night. It was as masterful a performance as either of his no-hitters.
He struck out nine and allowed only two hard-hit balls the entire night. The two walks he allowed earlier in the game were erased on double plays. He faced one batter over the minimum.
“He was outstanding, he really was,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “His last seven or eight starts, he’s kind of showed he still has Justin Verlander inside of him. Tonight was a little bit of an exclamation point.”
Verlander admitted this one was special. He threw his first no-hitter in 2007 when he was 24. The second one came four years later in 2011. Four years after that, he’s 32, he's come through core muscle surgery, the worst season of his career last year and his first stint on the disabled list (two months) this year.
“I was feeling it, but for different reasons,” he said. “In the past, not that it was ever easy, but I hadn’t been through a tough time in my career yet. This has a special meaning because of the way the fans were treating me and how they were reacting.”
From the sixth inning on, and especially after Verlander struck out the top of the Angels order in the seventh — Kole Calhoun, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols — the 31,938 fans at Comerica Park were on their feet with every pitch.
“I know they’ve wanted to see me back just as much as I have,” he said. “From the sixth inning on they were unbelievable. They got me goosebumps in the seventh. That was nice to hear.”
His teammates were feeling like something magical was happening long before that.
“I don’t know exactly what inning it was, maybe the fourth or fifth,” Ausmus said. “I started chewing barbecue seeds and standing in the same spot every time he took the mound. I can’t really feel my tongue right now but it was worth it.”
Catcher James McCann felt it early, too, but he said he and Verlander kept to the same between-innings routine.
“He was just spotting up (his pitches) all night,” he said. “I can’t think of even one mistake he made (other than the 2-2 fastball at 97 mph he left over the plate to Iannetta). All his pitches were working. He followed the game plan, stuck with it. Words can’t describe how good he was.”
Which is why McCann was crestfallen when Iannetta’s ball hit the chalk.
“Heartbreaking,” he said. “That’s literally as close as you can get — one hit and it lands on the chalk. You get that close to a no-hitter and it’s like getting your heart ripped out.”
There was no drama as far as the outcome of the game. The Tigers, who scored two runs or fewer in five of Verlander’s last six starts, broke out the boom sticks against Angels lefty Hector Santiago.
Nick Castellanos hit his 15th homer of the season in the second inning, a 423-foot shot beyond the visitors’ bullpen in left-center. It was his 11th home run since July 6.
Miguel Cabrera (17th) and J.D. Martinez (34th) hit two-run homers in the fifth.
“We needed this,” Ausmus said. “We’d been struggling, losing five straight. We absolutely needed this.”
Verlander’s two no-hitters were borne more from raw power. This one-hitter was more clinical. He established a good, firm fastball right from the start. He was hitting 94 mph in the first inning and didn’t decelerate.
But he was putting it on the corners and he was moving it up and down. He also expertly mixed in sliders, change-ups and tantalizing slow curves. He got Ryan Jackson to hit into a double play with a curveball. He got Erick Aybar to hit into a double play in the eighth off a change-up.
It was the first change-up Aybar had seen from him in three at-bats.
“I was able to locate my fastball and pitch him a different way,” Verlander said. “I was able to hold some pitches back that guys hadn’t seen all night.”
And like the Verlander of 2007 and 2011, his fastball gained velocity in the later innings. He was throwing 96 and 97 mph strikes in the eighth and ninth.
“I’ve put in a lot of work,” Verlander said. “I felt great in spring training and then going on the DL for two months for the first time in my career, at a time when I was feeling as good as I had in years — that was tough.
“But I could kind of see it coming. I was starting to feel better, getting swings and misses, seeing guys reacting to my pitches the way I like to see it. It feels great.”
Verlander, who has allowed one earned run or less in six of his last seven starts, said he never doubted he would get back to this level of dominance and he never listened to the naysayers who said his best days were behind him.
“You can’t,” he said. “Just be positive in yourself and believe in yourself. That’s what I’ve done my entire career. … I’m not saying it was easy. It’s a grind, it’s a grind mentally. For most guys, their careers have peaks and valleys.
“And it’s not easy to stay strong mentally when things aren’t going your way. But you have to do it.”
And on nights like Wednesday, you get to stand at the top of the mountain again.