Minneapolis — The Tigers left the Twin Cities after a long, long day of baseball Thursday with a half-game lead over Baltimore for the second wild-card spot.
Who saw that coming last weekend in Cleveland?
“This team is pretty good at just moving forward,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “Just trudging on regardless of what happened the day before.”
Justin Verlander struck out a season-high 11 in six gritty innings and the Tigers beat the Minnesota Twins 4-2 in the nightcap of a split doubleheader. They took the opener, the makeup from Wednesday night’s rainout, 9-2.
“I think this ballclub is pretty unique,” Verlander said. “Everything is matter of fact. You’ve got the end goal and we are all working toward that. I don’t think anybody is going to let the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows get to us until the end of the season.
“And hopefully we’re celebrating and popping some bottles. But until that time comes, it’s on to the next one every day.”
The Tigers have now won 11 straight games at Target Field, going 9-0 this season. And, with the Orioles losing to the Red Sox, they have possession of the second wild-card spot and are just a game out of the first wild-card spot with 10 games to go.
“It would mean a lot more to me after 10 games,” Ausmus said. “We’ve got to keep playing good baseball.”
Verlander struck out the side in three of the six innings he pitched. It was the seventh time this season he has posted 10 or more strikeouts in a game (36th time in his career). But his command wasn’t as sharp as it has been and thus, his pitch count got high quickly.
“It felt good to get the win, but personally, I wasn’t as sharp as I want to be,” he said. “I felt I got two strikes a lot and had trouble putting guys away efficiently. I got a lot of strikeouts but it took more pitches than ideally you would like.”
It was worrisome for Ausmus, too. He’d already used late-inning relievers Shane Greene and Alex Wilson in the first game. He had Justin Wilson and Bruce Rondon to use in the seventh and eighth, bridging the gap to closer Francisco Rodriguez.
But Verlander was at 96 pitches entering the sixth.
“It’s a little troublesome,” Ausmus said. “We had a lead and I didn’t really want to go to Greene or Alex Wilson because they pitched earlier. With his pitch count rising, if I had to pull him in the sixth, we’d have to fill the gap.”
Verlander walked the leadoff man in the sixth, ramping up the stress level. At that point, Verlander dusted off his curveball — a pitch that has been spotty for him recently but exceptional Thursday — and proceeded to strike out the next three hitters.
“It probably saved my start,” Verlander said of his curveball, which he was throwing between 78 and 83 mph. “It was the only pitch I was comfortable with all day. Obviously, they weren’t seeing it too well and I continued to use it. It got me out of some big spots.”
He got Max Kepler and Robbie Grossman looking at curveballs, then on his 115th pitch he blew a 97-mph heater past Eduardo Escobar.
“You just keep grinding and try to go as long as you can possibly go,” Verlander said. “It’s disappointing I was only able to go six innings, but we won and that’s what matters.”
He allowed only four hits. two of them solo home runs — to Juan Centeno in the third and Byron Buxton in the fifth. On both, Verlander went to 3-2 counts and got hurt on mid-90s fastballs.
But he left with a 4-2 lead, thanks to a brief bout of wildness by Twins starter Ervin Santana and some shoddy defense by the Twins.
Santana walked three straight batters in the second, including Erick Aybar with the bases loaded to force in the first run. Jarrod Saltalamacchia plated the second run in the inning with a sacrifice fly.
After Buxton’s home run tied it in the fifth, the Tigers turned two singles, an error, a missed cutoff man, a wild pitch and a passed ball into two more runs.
Justin Upton led off with an infield single and went to second on Brian Dozier’s errant throw. Aybar followed with an RBI single. He went to second when Buxton airmailed his throw from center field.
Aybar went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a passed ball.
The Tigers bullpen locked down the final three innings.
Justin Wilson allowed a walk but struck out two in a scoreless seventh. Bruce Rondon struck out the side in the eighth after walking the leadoff man. He got Kennys Vargas and Grossman looking at two-strike sliders.
The Twins struck out 17 times in the game.
Rodriguez, who hadn’t pitched since Sunday, pitched a clean ninth for his 44th save.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Rodriguez said. “We have to continue to play the way we are right now. We are going home and playing two great teams — the Royals and Cleveland. It’s nice to at least know that we have it in our own hands instead of waiting for other teams, depending on them to lose.
“But we’ve got to continue to carry the moment.”