Verlander punches out Mets, Tigers 2 back
Detroit — The Tigers keep winning. The crowds at Comerica Park are becoming more alive, charged with an energy enriched with much more positivity than earlier in the season.
It certainly feels like a playoff run, even if the Tigers players themselves won’t acknowledge it as such.
“Everybody is aware of where we’re at,” said Justin Verlander, who outdueled New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard in the Tigers’ 4-3 win Friday night. “But we’re also aware that it’s a 162-game season, and we were aware of that earlier with the peaks and valleys we had.
“It’s all about how you finish.”
The Tigers have won nine of their last 10 and are two games behind the Central Division-leading Indians, who lost to the Yankees Friday.
“We hope people are excited about this team,” Ian Kinsler said. “We’re playing really good baseball and having a lot of fun. We want everyone to join us. Plenty of room on the bandwagon.”
As manager Brad Ausmus said before the game, it was a baseball purist’s dream matchup Friday: Verlander vs. Syndergaard. Old-school ace vs. new-school ace. Verlander 1.0 vs. Verlander 2.0, if you like.
“I think Verlander feeds off that kind of stuff,” Ausmus said. “The more attention that’s paid to a particular game that he pitches, to a particular matchup — whether it’s against Chris Sale or Noah Syndergaard — his concentration level goes up another notch and he wants to beat him.”
Both pitchers slugged it out for six innings.
Verlander: Four hits, two runs, nine strikeouts.
Syndergaard: Seven hits, four runs, seven strikeouts.
“I’ve had plenty of games facing off against somebody who is superb,” Verlander said. “Through my career I’ve learned to shut out the noise and just go out and pitch.”
The Mets hitters battled and were able to push his pitch count to 103 in six innings, but they did minimal damage. A two-out, two-run home run by Kelly Johnson in the fourth inning was the extent of it. Johnson had been 0-for-15 against Verlander to that point, and did not miss a hanging breaking ball.
“It was a little bit of a mixed bag,” Verlander said. “I made some really good pitches and some not-so-good pitches. I was able to work around a little trouble there in the second inning. I would have liked to go deeper in the game but I was able to keep us in there against a tough pitcher.”
Verlander has won eight of his last nine starts. The team has won nine of his last 12. It was the seventh straight start he’s allowed two runs or fewer. And, as if that’s not enough, he’s 27-4 in interleague starts.
“He went in with a plan and on the fly he was able to adjust to what he saw,” Ausmus said. “He saw hitters taking good swings on pitches he thought they shouldn't be, he made the adjustment the next time around.
“That's what you do with experience. You learn that you have a scouting report. The scouting report dictates pitching in one particular manner and maybe they're taking better swings on pitches than they should be, so you adjust based on what you're seeing in front of you.”
Four of Verlander's nine strikeouts came off his slider, two were called third strikes. And yet, neither he, Ausmus nor Kinsler thought that pitch was anywhere near as sharp as it can be.
“I think there’s always times when his pitches are devastating, all four of them,” Kinsler said. “I think he probably expects more out of his slider than tonight. But he’s able to get away with it now. He’s dialed in, and when he makes mistakes, he’s not getting hurt.
“He changed some things with it, and it’s obviously helping. It’s keeping guys off his other pitches.”
Syndergaard wasn’t shabby, either, but he didn’t seem to have the usual zest on his fastball. His four-seamer averages 99 mph. He was throwing it mostly 96-98.
“It's August,” Ausmus said. “Generally guys' fastballs, they're going to lose a little bit as they amass innings. We're in the last third of the season and I think sometimes guys go out there and their fastball's not going to be as firm as it was in April. I think that's just normal.”
Victor Martinez’s 19th home run, a two-run bomb into the seats in right field, put the Tigers up 3-2 in the fourth. James McCann drove in the third run of the inning, a clutch, two-out, opposite-field single to score J.D. Martinez.
And speaking of old-school, Kinsler got things started on the right foot for the Tigers. He singled to start the game, then exploited one of Syndergaard’s few weaknesses. His delivery is slow to the plate, as evidenced by his giving up 45 stolen bases in 50 attempts.
Make that 47 of 52. Kinsler stole second easily and third without a throw.
“When you watch him play every day — I mean, I knew he was a good ballplayer when he came here from Texas,” Verlander said. “But to watch him every day, he’s incredible. He’s one of the biggest keys to this team.”
Kinsler scored on a ground out by Miguel Cabrera.
“Omar (Vizquel) and I, we go through every single guy in terms of base-stealing, baserunning, what to look for, who we can and can't run on,” Ausmus said. “We had an idea, but until you see it, until Kinsler goes out there and stands at first base, it's all theory.”
All that was left was for the Tigers’ suddenly sterling back end of the bullpen to lock it down. Shane Greene struck out two in a clean seventh. Justin Wilson followed with a clean eight. And Francisco Rodriguez, though he allowed a run — set up by a leadoff single and wild pitch — posted his 31st save.
It was the first run in 13 innings allowed by the bullpen.
Fire up the bandwagon.