Verlander dazzles on safety-squeeze bunt

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Toronto — Athletes. They have skills that are so multi-dimensional and so exquisitely refined the performers often awe as much as they entertain.

Justin Verlander displays it all the time. On a baseball field. On a golf course. With pitches that dazzle. And, on occasion, with defense, which was on stage in the sixth inning of Thursday’s game at Rogers Centre, which the Blue Jays won, 5-4, thanks to two runs in the eighth that sank the Tigers in the first game of a four-game series.

It happened with Blue Jays runners at second and third and none out in Toronto’s half of the sixth.

Ezequiel Carrera, who once upon a time worked for the Tigers, steered a safety-squeeze bunt past the mound that Verlander grabbed. It looked like a sure run for the Jays. Verlander would take the easy out at first and forget about Kevin Pillar, a speedster who was steaming home.

Verlander decided he had a shot. He wheeled and threw. Pillar plowed past the plate. Out, said home plate umpire Andy Fletcher, whose call was sustained after a long replay.

“Basically, about as perfect of a throw as you can make,” said Tigers catcher James McCann, who tried to keep Pillar from having a clean corridor across home plate. “I really don’t think you could make that play any better than we did.”

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus agreed, mentioning Verlander’s uncanny “athleticism.”

It’s why they’re professionals. With talents and feats that are rarely restricted to a single art or category.

Bullpen bruises

Ausmus said he pulled Verlander with two gone in the sixth because of a pitch-count, 103, that was heightened by Thursday’s hot, humid night.

Neither was Ausmus pleased that Josh Donaldson, who had taken some healthy cuts earlier against Verlander, was the next batter as Ausmus replaced Verlander with Shane Greene.

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Greene hit Donaldson with a pitch to load the bases but struck out Edwin Encarnacion on a vicious 84-mph slider to end the sixth.

Greene was nicked for a run in the seventh that cut the Tigers’ lead to 4-3. Justin Wilson arrived in the seventh and pitched into the eighth. He was charged with the Blue Jays’ tying and go-ahead runs that scored on Troy Tulowitzki’s two-run single against Alex Wilson.

Ausmus was minus a right-handed arm Thursday. Bruce Rondon was ordered to the team hotel with a flu virus, which grabbed him on the flight from Cleveland late Wednesday.

Ausmus said he chose not to go with closer Francisco Rodriguez in the eighth, preferring not to burn his closer ahead of the ninth.

“I thought about it,” said Ausmus, who acknowledged he had made an eighth-inning move earlier this season, “but I didn’t want to go to him again.”

Guessing game

No, the Tigers don’t know who will pitch in Saturday’s or Sunday’s games against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

Ideas, obviously, are welcomed as a team deals with whole chunks of its starting rotation having been ripped away by injuries to Jordan Zimmermann (neck strain) and Daniel Norris (oblique).

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus probably has a percentage guess on who will start. But he wasn’t saying anything remotely close to firm Thursday as he mulled questions.

"Don’t have it yet,” said Ausmus as the Tigers got ready to play the Jays in the first of a four-game set that precedes next week’s All-Star break.

Ausmus acknowledged Anibal Sanchez is a possibility for Saturday, although the Tigers probably aren’t wild about the Sanchez option given his 2016 issues.

Neither are the Tigers saying anything reliable about the likelihood Matt Boyd will be summoned, again, from Triple A Toledo, to start in Sunday’s game.

But choices are few as the Tigers, who already were enduring ample headaches with their rotation’s ways, struggle to patch and replace in the aftermath of Zimmerann’s and Norris’ rapid-fire departures.

One comparison

Ausmus has said before that rookie Michael Fulmer reminds him of a particular pitcher from Ausmus’ 18 years in the big leagues.

Roy Oswalt.

Oswalt arrived when Ausmus was catching for the Astros and, with his fastball-slider combo, spun a 1-2 combo of out-pitches in which Fulmer has specialized since he joined the Tigers in late April.

There’s another shared impression. It has to do with each pitcher’s rookie season.

“In terms of impact on a team,” Ausmus said, “the only one I could compare (Fulmer) to is Roy Oswalt.”

Oswalt was 14-3, with a 2.73 ERA in his first season, 2001. Fulmer, with nearly three months remaining in the regular season, is 9-2 with a 2.11 ERA