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Bob Wojnowski, Tony Paul and Chris McCosky discuss the Tigers at the quarter pole of the season. The Detroit News

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Detroit — The crowd was smaller, the ovation not nearly as loud. Justin Verlander saw a few familiar faces, but for him, this was a completely unfamiliar scene.

It felt like the end of a nostalgic embrace, heartfelt without heart strings. Verlander returned for the second time with the Astros and reminded Tigers fans of the greatness they once saw on a regular basis. He was mostly dominant, beating the Tigers 5-1 Wednesday night, and the gap between two teams and two eras looked wider than ever.

Houston beat the Tigers by a cumulative 24-6 in the three-game sweep, capped by a routine thumping before a crowd of 15,940 at Comerica Park, barely a thousand more than showed up for the first two games of the series. Verlander generated polite applause and called it special, but this was a long way from Must-See JV Time.

“It’s kind of sad,” Verlander said. “Most of my memories here, this ballpark was packed, the fans were rowdy. It’s obviously a bit different now, but that comes with winning. Nothing against these guys, I know they’re grinding and playing the best baseball they can, but it comes down to winning.”

When Verlander walked off the mound after the seventh inning, having allowed two hits and striking out nine, the smattering of fans behind the visitor’s dugout stood and cheered, and he doffed his cap. I suppose it’s harder to reminisce when the Tigers (18-23) are trudging through a rebuild that isn’t exactly going smoothly. After the game, Ron Gardenhire announced young third baseman Jeimer Candelario was being sent to Toledo, saddled with a .192 batting average.

Disappointment

The connection grows thinner the longer Verlander is away, and it’s approaching two years since the Tigers officially launched their rebuild by trading him for prospects. Oh, Verlander still is beloved by many Tigers fans, still a near-certain Hall-of-Famer, still one of the franchise’s all-time greats. But through no fault of his own, he’s also the nagging symbol of what could have been, or should have been, and how far the Tigers have to go.

The Astros won the world championship the Tigers chased for a decade, and Verlander was the one who helped deliver it in 2017. If possible, he’s been even better since, now 7-1 with a 2.38 ERA. He has said his biggest regret here was not winning the World Series for Mike Ilitch, losing in 2006 and 2012, and that lingered for a while.

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“I gave everything I possibly had,” Verlander, 36, said. “But I don’t sit back and think of those moments and how we came so close. I did for a long time. But winning one, personally, kind of exorcises some of those demons and memories. You remember one pitch here and there, and that can dwell on you. I’m definitely disappointed we weren’t able to pull it off here, always will be.”

The Astros, after years and years of struggling, are reaping the Verlander benefits now. The Tigers should reap more benefits eventually, as three prospects acquired in the trade — outfielder Daz Cameron, catcher Jake Rogers, pitcher Franklin Perez — show plenty of promise.

Flash of feistiness

There was a little buzz early in this game, a big cheer when JaCoby Jones slugged a third-inning home run for the Tigers’ first hit, and that was pretty much it. Miguel Cabrera, the other symbol of a bygone era, didn’t play because of a sore knee, depriving the fans of one fun confrontation, although Verlander didn’t mind missing Miggy.

“No,” he said with a laugh. “We talked about it a bunch when we played together, and I don’t know what I would’ve done though. I’ve seen him be such a hitter for so long, you had all these moments in your head, flashbacks to, well, he’s hit that pitch, he’s hit that pitch, he’s hit that pitch.”

Cabrera was injured when Verlander returned for the first time with the Astros last September. That was an emotional night as the Tigers honored Verlander with a tribute video, and although the crowd was only 19,711, the atmosphere was much more electric.

The plug has been pulled on that, although Verlander sounds genuinely appreciative of the fans and the city he called home for 12 years.

“It honestly is really special,” Verlander said. “For the most part of my career here, fans were incredible toward me. I had a couple of bad years, and people were like the one guy out in left field tonight who kind of threw me.”

He smiled as he told the story of a fan near the Astros bullpen who welcomed Verlander back Wednesday night by repeatedly yelling variations of “you (stink)!” He actually seemed to enjoy it, perhaps because he knows he doesn’t remotely (stink), and perhaps because it was a flash of the feisty passion that used to fill Comerica Park. That time is long gone, and the days of reminiscence are just about over.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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