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Tigers suspicious of Indians as sign-stealers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander threw a one-hitter over seven innings against the Indians on Saturday.

Cleveland — The Tigers don't have any hard evidence, but they have had their suspicions.

The Indians hit the ball incredibly well at home. Their .292 team batting average and .839 OPS at Progressive Field are second to the Red Sox in the American League and third in the majors.

There have been rumblings around baseball for a couple years that the Indians might be stealing signs from opposing catchers.

“We’re careful about signs here,” manager Brad Ausmus said after the Tigers' 10-inning, 1-0 loss on Saturday. “There’s no accusation or anything. We’re just careful with the signs here.”

Tigers starter Justin Verlander backed off the mound seven times in seven innings after having catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia run through a series of signs. The Indians hitters stepped out numerous times themselves. Mike Napoli stepped out of the box three times during his at-bat in the second inning, frustrated at how long it was taking for Verlander to accept a sign.

And there was nobody on base and Verlander threw him six straight fastballs.

“They hit a lot better at home,” Verlander said. “But a lot of teams do. You just kind of want to eliminate that.”

He blamed all the step offs and delays on getting back in sync with Saltalamacchia, who hadn’t caught him since June 26.

“We haven’t thrown to each other in a while, so I think a lot of that was just getting on the same page again, and it got better and better,” Verlander said. “Salty did a great job. As the game went on, we started to click and just kind of went from there.”

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Sign paranoia aside, Verlander put on a show. In his previous two starts against the Indians, he’d been tagged for 15 runs. This time, he allowed just one sixth-inning single by Jason Kipnis in seven shutout innings.

But he wasn’t accepting any redemption.

“I mean, it felt good to pitch against them, yeah,” he said. “But we lost, so -- it still (stinks).”

He was overpowering when he most needed to be. He mixed in his slider and curve expertly in critical moments. After being just a tick off early, he was locating his pitches, all his pitches, with precision by the later innings.

“It was pretty interesting,” he said. “Just kind of lost control on the arm side of the plate, really. Especially when I worked out of the stretch. They were just kind of a ball off pretty consistently, and I couldn’t quite bring it back -- which was a little bit weird.

“Obviously, I never want to walk four guys but I was able to reign it in when I needed to.”

The four walks led to his only stress, in the second and the third innings. But he reached back and threw upper-90-mph gas to extricate himself both times.

The Indians had runners at second and third with one out in the second inning. Rookie Tyler Naquin, who homered off Verlander in June, saw three pitches – all fastballs at 96, 96 and 97 mph. He swung and missed all three.

Verlander then retired Abraham Almonte to end the inning.

In the third, he faced red-hot Napoli with two on and two out. Napoli pulled two 97-mph fastballs hard and foul. So on a 3-2 pitch, Verlander threw him a 91 mph slider – swinging strike three.

“I felt like I had a decent feel for (his secondary pitches) the whole game,” Verlander said. “I just didn’t use them a lot early, just attacked with the fastball. I used it when I needed to.”

According to Brooks Baseball, Verlander threw 69 fastballs at the Indians, and they ranged from 92-97 mph. Naquin won’t soon forget this day. He saw 10 pitches, all fastballs from 95-97 mph, and he swung and missed on six of them.

“I felt pretty much like I have the last few months,” Verlander shrugged, when asked about having some extra heat on his fastball.

Unfortunately, his work yielded no reward. He had retired 12 of 13 batters through seven innings, but at 106 pitches, he was pulled after seven innings of a scoreless game.

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“In talking to him, I could tell,” Ausmus said. “He’d never admit it, but I could tell he was a little tired. He said he’d go out there and get the first guy. Part of it was -- he probably could have gone out and got (Roberto) Perez to start the inning.

“But Santana’s given him some trouble, so I didn’t want to go out there, somehow Perez gets on and then we’ve got to bring a guy out with a man on base and face Santana. I’d rather just give Alex Wilson a clean inning to start on his own.”

Verlander was on board with that.

“I think our (bullpen) guys have done a much better job with a fresh inning, and Brad’s probably not going to let me ride it out there for 130 pitches,” he said. “So we were ready to get a guy out there to start a new inning. And it worked out. Our guys did a good job.”

Alex Wilson kept the game scoreless with a gritty effort in the eighth. He gave up a walk and a double to Kipnis with one out. But he came back and struck out both Francisco Lindor and Napoli.

Bruce Rondon got the first two outs of the ninth, but Naquin, freed of Verlander’s tyranny, singled. Former Tiger Rajai Davis pinch-ran for him and stole second. Rondon then walked Almonte intentionally.

Lefty Justin Wilson was summoned when the Indians sent left-handed hitting Lonnie Chisenhall to the plate. Indians manager Terry Francona countered with right-handed hitting Brandon Guyer – which Ausmus anticipated.

Wilson got two strikes on Guyer when runners moved up on a double steal that the Tigers did not contest.

“I wasn’t conceding before two strikes,” Ausmus said. “But with Wilson pitching and Guyer up. Wilson throws a lot of cutters and a lot of ground balls, so I didn’t want (third baseman Andrew) Romine breaking to third with two strikes on the hitter and all of sudden he hits a ground ball and it goes into the outfield.

“Raj was going to score from second on a single anyway. Once we got to two strikes, I didn’t care if they stole or not.”

It worked out because Guyer in fact did ground out to Romine. Still, it was an empty feeling afterward.

“Every loss is frustrating for one reason or another,” Verlander said. “It’s easy to look back and say this should’ve happened or that should’ve happened or whatever. There’s so many variables when it comes to losing that you end up second-guessing.

“I wouldn’t put any more emphasis on this one than any other. It’s just this time or year, there’s more pressure to win. So you feel it. You know you need to win. But it wasn’t in the cards tonight.”

Twitter: @cmccosky