Verlander strikes out 10, beats Tigers in his homecoming

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander delivers against his former team, the Detroit Tigers, during the first inning at Comerica Park on Monday.

Detroit — He was walking toward the Astros dugout after his pregame bullpen work when the video montage started.

“Welcome back one of the greatest pitchers in Detroit Tigers baseball history.”

Justin Verlander stopped in right field and turned back to the giant scoreboard. Nobody else was on the field except him as the video played.

BOX SCORE: Astros 3, Tigers 2

“Thank you, Justin Verlander,” was the final line of the montage and the smallish crowd — many wearing Verlander Tigers’ jerseys — stood and applauded.

Verlander, visibly emotional, tipped his cap to the crowd and then, with a tap of his heart, to the Tigers dugout.

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"I didn't know how I was going to feel," said Verlander.

Until, he said, the video showed late owner Mike Ilitch handing out the Tigers rings after the American League Championship series in 2012.

"I so wish I could have gotten him and the Tigers a World Series," he said.

Somehow, Verlander gathered his emotions and steeled himself to the task of beating his former team. The fact the Tigers hit four home runs off him in Houston earlier this season may have helped him refocus.

Verlander went seven strong innings, helping the Astros take the opener of a three-game series 3-2. He allowed the two runs on six hits and struck out 10 — the 10th time this season and 67th on his career he's posted 10 or more strikeouts.

It was his 98th career victory at Comerica Park — the most by any pitcher in the park’s history. Max Scherzer is second with 46. The most wins by an active Tigers pitcher at Comerica Park — Jordan Zimmermann, 14.

"He threw the ball great," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We got a couple situations where we had some opportunities. But that's what the great ones do, they rare back and have a little extra burst. 

"He did that tonight. He pumped it up when he got into trouble."

Maybe the one highlight for the Tigers' offense was rookie Christian Stewart.

In his first big-league start, facing a future Hall-of-Famer, he flew out to deep center field and then, in the sixth inning, ripped a single past second baseman Jose Altuve.

"If someone would have told me I going to get my first major-league hit off Verlander in my first start, I mean, that was an out-of-body experience," Stewart said. "It felt great. I thought I had it on the first one — but then I realized I was in Comerica Park."

It wasn’t quite a vintage performance by Verlander — especially not for September with the Astros in full playoff-chase mode.

But he finished with a flurry. The Tigers had the tying run at second base after a one-out throwing error by third baseman Alex Bregman. Verlander, approaching 100 pitches, struck out JaCoby Jones with a 97 mph fastball.

"He's a Hall-of-Fame pitcher," Jones said. "He reaches back for that extra gear. He's at 95-96, and then when he needs it, he can get it up there close to 100 mph. He's a tough pitcher."

He then got two strikes on Jeimer Candelario, whom he fanned twice earlier, and finished him off with a slider.

Verlander tipped his cap to yet another standing ovation.

"I don't think in sports you get a lot of moments like that," he said.

As Gardenhire said, the Tigers had a chance to get to him early, in the second inning, while he still getting his legs under him. Niko Goodrum led off with a double into the right-field corner and went to third on an infield single by Ronny Rodriguez.

The Tigers would only scratch across one run — on a one-out single by Dawel Lugo. On the next pitch, Jones hit a line drive right at third baseman Bregman, who threw quickly to second base and doubled off Rodriguez.

Verlander settled in and set down 10 straight Tigers hitters until the sixth inning.

With a 3-1 lead, Verlander walked Candelario. Stewart's single sent him to third and he scored on a sacrifice fly by Nick Castellanos.

The Tigers had a potential game-tying rally thwarted by a very unusual double play in the eighth inning. With Castellanos at first and one out, Victor Martinez hit a slicing liner to left field. Jake Marisnick seemed to lose the ball in the lights.

He made the catch on his knees, just before the ball hit the ground. 

Castellanos couldn't see if the ball was caught or trapped and neither the third base umpire nor the second base ump signaled one way or another.

"Nobody signaled anything and our base runner didn't know where to go," Gardenhire said. "Nicky had no where to go. He was stuck."

Castellanos was hung up between first and second and ultimately doubled up on a strong relay throw by shortstop Carlos Correa. 

"My argument was the call didn't come quick enough for us to be able to react to it," Gardenhire said. "They said (third base umpire Pat Hoberg) did the best he could."

The Astros, who lead the American League West and have the best road record in baseball (49-32), aren’t a team that needs much help. But the Tigers gave them three gift runs in the third inning.

With George Springer at first and one out, Tigers starter Francisco Liriano induced a two-hop ground ball from Altuve. But instead of an inning-ending double-play, shortstop Rodriguez booted it.

The next hitter, Bregman, also hit a ground ball to Rodriguez, another potential double-play ball. But the turn between Rodriguez and Lugo was slow and Bregman easily beat the throw to first.

"You've got to make plays," Gardenhire said. "You miss plays and that's what always happens."

Springer would score on a wild pitch — a ball that skipped through the five-hole on catcher James McCann.

Singles by Tyler White and Marwin Gonzalez scored two more.

All three runs were unearned.