Detroit — The frustration alone might have unraveled a lesser pitcher. Heck, a start like that might have rattled Justin Verlander, too, back in his younger days.
But he’s 34 now and it was his 368th career start Tuesday night. He’s seen some things. He’s overcome some things. This would be just another test of his mettle.
“To have three bloopers in a row like that, it’s pretty disheartening,” he said. “Especially in the first inning. You can work around a few of those here and there throughout the game. But to have three in a row right out of the gate like that, it’s pretty tough to wiggle out of that.”
The first five Royals hitters reached base against Verlander. Whit Merrifield doubled and Jorge Bonifacio laced a curve ball into left field for an RBI single. Those two, Verlander could live with. Both were legitimate, hard-hit balls.
The next three, well it as like a bad dream. Lorenzo Cain hit a jam shot blooper to right field. Eric Hosmer dropped a dying quail into left field against the Tigers’ defensive shift. And then Salvador Perez popped one up into short right field that fell just inches from Ian Kinsler’s outstretched glove.
“The crappy part about that is, that ball just misses Kinsler’s glove, and Cain had taken off from second,” Verlander said. “If that ball is caught, it’s a double play.”
At that point, three runs were in, and the Royals still had runners at first and second. In other words, it was a crisis point — and the Tigers hadn’t even come to bat yet.
“I just had to pull from experience there,” he said. “It could have been worse. It would have been easy to let that fall apart in a hurry. But I was able to slow the game down a little bit and see the bigger picture.
“It’s just the first inning. Bear down and try to keep the damage to a minimum.”
It’s always a marvel to watch how deep an elite player can reach when he’s backed into a corner. Verlander got Mike Moustakas to hit into a 3-6 fielder’s choice and, with Hosmer at third and one out, he struck out Brandon Moss flailing at three straight curve balls.
He may have had the sense that his luck was changing when Alcides Escobar’s shot up the middle caromed off him and went right to Kinsler, who got the force out at second base.
“You tell yourself to keep making pitches and hopefully your luck turns,” Verlander said. “If every ball they put in play finds a hole, you are not going to have a good day no matter what … I wasn’t happy coming out of that inning, but I was happy to keep the damage to a minimum and have a chance to re-set a little bit.”
He would scatter four more hits through the seventh inning. He struck out six, and the Tigers played some sublime defense behind him, too. Miguel Cabrera took a hit away from Moss with a diving, full lay-out stop at first base. Mikie Mahtook risked life and limb, crashing full speed into the wall in center field to rob Perez on a ball he hit 427 feet.
“It’s always a great moment seeing your teammate lay out and sacrifice his body to make a play for you,” Verlander said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
He was at 104 pitches through six and only needed seven more pitches to finish the seventh — getting Cain to hit into a 6-4-3 double play on his 111th pitch.
“You’ve got to give him credit in the sense that he didn’t let it affect him,” catcher James McCann said. “He very easily could have let the frustration take over and it could have gotten out of hand. He came back and put up six straight zeros.”
The Tigers offense backed his efforts with a couple of home runs (J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera) and Verlander got his fifth win of the season.
“I was lucky to get out of the inning with just three runs — not lucky, I made some pitches,” Verlander said. “But that’s a tough spot to be in. You tell yourself, ‘All right, bear down.’ What else was I going to do? There was nothing else I could do.
“I was glad I was able to grind it out and keep us in the game.”