Boston — Not every Justin Verlander masterpiece ends in a smashed work of art, ruined by an enemy team’s guile, his teammates’ deflated bats, or some bullpen mischief.
Sometimes his friends show a bit of heroism. Skills to match Verlander’s own powerhouse artistry become part of the master mix.
Monday night, for example, at Fenway Park will be recorded as one of those hot summer evenings when the Tigers played baseball so well on all ends there was little chance but to win, which Detroit did in grabbing the first game of their three-game set, 4-2, over the Red Sox at a place that historically loves to torture a team from Motown.
“It was a game I felt like we needed to win to stop a slide,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team was gut-punched Sunday in back-to-back walkoff losses against the White Sox at Chicago.
Verlander’s wizardry was nearly matched by a couple of Tigers batters Monday: Jose Iglesias, who powdered a Drew Pomeranz fastball beyond left field’s Green Monster for a two-run homer in the sixth. And by a terrific at-bat from James McCann in the seventh when he hung in against five consecutive 100-mph fastballs from Joe Kelly and poked a soft single to center to score Justin Upton who had tripled leading off the inning, pushing Detroit’s lead to 3-1.
“I don’t know if it was his biggest at-bat of the year,” Ausmus said of McCann’s two-strike stubbornness in the eighth. “But it was one of the bigger and better.”
Given the relative desperation of Monday’s duel, Ausmus decided to gamble on a four-out save from Francisco Rodriguez.
He was first asked to craft an eighth-inning prison-escape after Justin Wilson loaded the bases with none out. The Red Sox scored a run on a one-out single before Wilson struck out the next batter, Brock Holt, which cued Ausmus to hail K-Rod. He got the final out on a hard hopper to shortstop by Mookie Betts.
“Things still have to line up,” said Ausmus of his call for Rodriguez. “If Wilson doesn’t get Holt, I’ve got to have Alex Wilson pitch against the right-hander (Mookie Betts). Some things still have to align.”
K-Rod's subsequent mop-up of the Red Sox in the ninth saved a victory for Verlander, who is now 10-6, and who made it five consecutive starts in which his earned-run totals appear thusly: 1, 2, 1, 1, 1.
Five games. Six earned runs.
“I take it start by start,” said Verlander, shrugging at his summer string of maestro-grade starts. “You throw one game and get ready for the next one.
“It doesn’t help,” Verlander said, with a devilish grin, “when the first batter (Betts, in the first) has a 10-pitch at-bat. “I told Nick: ‘That might be the biggest at-bat of the game.’”
Verlander’s reference was to third baseman Nick Castellanos, who put away Betts on a deft grab of a grounder.
More of the Red Sox’s peskiness showed up in the second as Verlander was about to zap Jackie Bradley, Jr., for the third out and lock up a hitless first two innings. Bradley slapped a grounder that was ready to be vacuumed by Iglesias until it hit the bag at second base for a single.
“Just once,” Ausmus said, sardonically, “I want a ball to hit the bag when we hit one.”
Verlander managed along with his skipper a half-grin. Of a quirk that cost him nine more pitches and a run when Travis Shaw hit a change-up for a RBI double, Verlander said: “Bags have been around baseball for 100 years. I should have caught it.”
The Red Sox otherwise did little against Verlander’s now-standard stream of located fastballs — steadily in the mid-90s —sliders, curves, and a change-up Verlander threw once all because he and the advance scouts saw little need for it against Boston’s battalion.
He lasted six innings and 110 pitches, spreading five hits, walking two and striking out five. As is the Red Sox’s creed, they got the enemy starter out of the game early.
“No question,” Ausmus said, “their hitters do a great job of extending counts. It’s why they’re the offensive club they are.”
Interesting, though, how the Tigers countered Monday. Rather than step from the mound after six steamy innings with his usual 1-0 deficit, the Tigers had gotten busy beginning in the sixth against Pomeranz, who showed why Red Sox chief Dave Dombrowski lassoed him two weeks ago in a trade with the Padres.
But he couldn’t throw it past Iglesias in the sixth when the Red Sox were on top, 1-0, and, it seemed, destined to deliver Verlander another of those somber, he-didn’t-deserve-that defeats.
Andrew Romine had started matters against Pomeranz, who at the time had allowed only two hits, when Romine poked a soft leadoff single to center.
With one out, Iglesias, who was batting second because Cameron Maybin was gone with a strained neck, got an 0-and-1 fastball from Pomeranz and cracked it on a soaring flight-path down the left-field line. It stayed fair by a few feet and arced past the Green Monster’s penthouse balcony onto Landsdowne Street.
“Absolutely,” said Iglesias, speaking of how his emotions surge when he returns to Boston, where he began his big-league career ahead of a trade three years ago this week to the Tigers. “It was my first organization.”
Iglesias also had a single Monday and made his usual collection of medal-winning plays at short.
After his Green Monster missile had put the Tigers ahead, 2-1, McCann’s steely at-bat in the seventh put the Tigers on top, 3-1.
The Tigers got another in the eighth after Iglesias golfed a leadoff single to seventh, cruised to second on a passed ball, and scored on Victor Martinez’s single to right.
K-Rod then cleaned up immaculately in the ninth with a strikeout, pop to short, and comeback topper by Ortiz that Rodriguez handled gently for a victory that pushed the Tigers to 52-48.
The Tigers had whacked the Red Sox the first time the two teams had faced each other this year. It was a nice beachhead for Ausmus team, at the start of July’s trade deadline week, and it had come at a place that for so long has tortured them.
Verlander has a way of correcting matters for a certain team from Detroit. Monday night, he could say, happily, he had ample help.