'Focused' Verlander has everything working, dominates Rockies

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander struck out nine over six innings and had an RBI single in Wednesday's victory.

Denver — Victories come against opposing teams. And sometimes they come every bit as much against venues and conditions.

A pitcher who could speak from experience as much as from expertise had much to say about both subjects Wednesday as he stood in a crisp blue suit in front of his visitor’s clubhouse locker at Coors Field.

Justin Verlander had just helped throttle the Rockies, 6-2, as the Tigers, who have had double trouble outside of Comerica Park in 2017, won two of three games to bag a road series.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 6, Rockies 2

In high-80s temperatures, in air 5,000 feet above sea level that turns curveballs into clay pigeons and dehydrates so quickly it might as well make Gatorade the official state beverage, Verlander had a particularly happy triumph Wednesday.

He lasted six innings and 98 pitches. The Rockies got him for a mere three hits and one run. He struck out nine. He walked one.

He was, in other words, Verlander, right down to the grinning guy who afterward took such giddy delight in a first-inning single that accounted for his first big-league RBI, thanks to this being a National League site and thus a game where pitchers bat.

“McCann said before the game: ‘Drive in more than you give up,’” Verlander said, referring to Tigers catcher James McCann, who was being playful but who also was making a point to a pitcher who loves batting.

“It’s fun in my 12th year to have a first. It’s always fun.”

More: Tigers' McCann, Castellanos rock Rockies with 'big blow'

What a flourish to his Tigers days. If, in fact, his life with the Tigers ended Wednesday, despite no firm evidence that any trade talk is bubbling.

Big-league teams have until midnight Thursday to add players who will be eligible for postseason rosters.

Verlander is known to have cleared waivers and is sitting there as the galaxy’s most esteemed available starter. And he indeed is an auction item for a rebuilding team, as the Tigers have acknowledged, and as Verlander himself has essentially accepted.

“Yeah, it’s on my mind,” said Verlander, who seems alternately to have been irritated by trade talk and, maybe personally, exhilarated by a potential chance to pitch in October. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.”

Nothing about Wednesday’s start would have bothered potential shoppers. Even when he left after six innings and 98 pitches and was later seen talking animatedly in the Tigers dugout with trainer Kevin Rand.

It was nothing, at least in Verlander’s and the Tigers’ view.

“Kind of the trap,” Verlander said, pointing to a general shoulder-neck area  the trapezius muscle is located there  that he suspected became fatigued from swinging a bat.

“Not anything to do with pitching,” he said, adding that indeed altitude and dehydration were probably at work as much as delving into that un-American League activity, hitting.

“A couple of times when the inning ended with an at-bat, I found myself pretty gassed. I would like to have gone deeper.”

Verlander’s answer Wednesday to Coors Field and Denver’s air was to give physics its due and control what he could.

That meant lots of fastballs, which he consistently threw at 95, 96, and 97 mph. He offset them with a slider that was particularly comfortable.

“His slider today was one of the best I’ve seen from him,” McCann said.

Verlander stayed away from his customary second pitch, his curveball, which seemed to not enjoy Coors’ atmosphere.

The only run allowed by Verlander came in the sixth when Charlie Blackmon caught a curve and hammered it beyond the center-field fence.

“It wasn’t my game plan,” Verlander said, “but I just kind of felt early that the curveball didn’t quite have that bite.”

Brad Ausmus confirmed that Verlander’s shortened six-inning shift was all about fatigue and the muscle-strain a manager, too, figured came from batting practice and, of course, slapping RBI singles.

“If he said he was fine, he was going back out there,” said Ausmus, who made a point of mentioning Verlander on Wedneday “was very focused.”

Not that trade talk and scouting reports were necessarily a factor there, but Wednesday’s data on Verlander didn’t hurt his retail price should the Tigers and another team talk earnestly ahead of Thursday’s cut-off.

“The most impressive thing,” Ausmus said, “is that he continues to maintain his velocity. He’s not a kid. He’s simply an unbelievable competitor.”

The Tigers gave Verlander a hand Wednesday, thanks to 11 hits.

Nicholas Castellanos had a mighty day, blasting a homer into the left-field seats to go with a double and single. It was Castellanos’ 19th homer of 2017, the most he has hit in his four big-league seasons.

Jose Iglesias also had three hits, all singles.

Drew VerHagen and Alex Wilson pitched a pair of shutout innings in relief ahead of Shane Greene allowing a run on a single and double in the ninth.

The Tigers, who will celebrate their road-series conquest with an off-day Thursday, are back at work Friday in an afternoon-evening doubleheader against the Indians.


Twitter: @Lynn_Henning