Friday, 1 July 2011

Detroit Tigers' bullpen saved by Justin Verlander in 5-2 win over Mets

justin-verlander-30.jpgAP PhotoDetroit's Justin Verlander picked up his 11th win Thursday.DETROIT -- Justin Verlander paused and pondered.

The question: After a rare subpar day when the Detroit Tigers’ ace struggled with control and command, what pitch ultimately worked best?

"Nothing," baseball’s leader in pitching victories finally surmised.

Verlander’s no-hit bit was gone after one batter. His shutout bid was gone after a leadoff home run in the second. And the New York Mets, who had 38 hits and 30 runs during the previous two days, mounted multiple scoring threats and amassed bountiful two-strike foul balls, all of which kept Verlander on edge and drove up his pitch count.

That’s what made Verlander’s seven-inning outing in a 5-2 victory so impressive Thursday, in a much different way than the rest of his dominant June.

He threw 120 pitches, five fewer than the maximum pitch count in place for him. He managed to allow only one run before handing the final two innings to Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde, the only relievers in the overworked bullpen who didn’t work one of the previous two games.

It wasn’t his typical every-fifth-day masterpiece, yet held a beauty of its own for the 11-game winner who has victories in seven consecutive starts.

"I didn’t pitch well. I battled well. And that’s something I pride myself on," Verlander said. "I’ve been on a pretty good run here, had pretty doggone good stuff for a period of time here, and you’ve got to know that’s not going to last the entire season. But when you don’t have your best stuff, and you don’t have your best control, it’s just a matter of going out there and really grinding through it."

Jim Leyland said for Verlander to hold down the Mets after their two-day offensive barrage, the likes of which the Tigers manager said he never had seen before, "just shows you how good he is."

"That’s even higher praise today, for me, for Justin Verlander," Leyland said. "I would even have higher praise for him today than some other days, because you go out there where you’re not maybe quite as sharp as you’ve been, and hold a team that got that many hits and scored that many runs in the last two nights. It’s pretty unbelievable, really."

Leyland, asked to name his most dominant starting pitchers in a managerial career dating to 1986, had a short list.

"Doug Drabek, Kevin Brown, Justin Verlander -- and those guys were pretty good," Leyland said, the first two being his former staff aces with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins.

Verlander left runners in scoring position in the first, fourth and fifth innings. He allowed a solo home run to Mets cleanup hitter Daniel Murphy in the second. In the seventh, left fielder Brennan Boesch threw out Josh Thole trying to score on a fly ball.

"I’m a little bit disappointed in myself for not being able to go out there and find my rhythm like I would like to, but, at the same time, pretty pleased with the way that I was able to go out there and give us a chance," Verlander said.

The victory pushed Verlander to 11-3 and he kept pace for the major-league lead with CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees, who also recorded his 11th win.

Catcher Alex Avila said Verlander was "all over the place with his fastball and his curveball wasn’t as sharp."

"He definitely struggled with his command on all his pitches today," Avila said. "He clearly didn’t have his best stuff. It’s funny, because he still pitched a really good ballgame and you’re still, like, ‘He really didn’t have his best stuff.’ But 99 percent of pitchers will take that."

After the third inning, when the Tigers gave Verlander a three-run cushion, the pitcher became more focused on reducing his pitch count and getting Mets hitters to put the ball in play. That worked for him in a 1-2-3 sixth inning, which secured his opportunity to pitch the seventh.

"Obviously, you don’t want to throw it right down the meat of the plate and have them tee off on you," he said. "But, for me, it’s trying to throw 91, 92, 93, hit my spots, and have them hit balls weakly into play."

Verlander was 6-0 with a 0.92 ERA in June, making him the first major-leaguer with a 6-0 record and sub-1.00 ERA since Kenny Rogers, for Texas, in May 2005, and the first Tiger with five-plus starts and a sub-1.00 ERA since Doyle Alexander in September 1987.

The first game of the season’s second half pushed the Tigers (44-38) a half-game ahead of idle Cleveland for the American League Central lead.

Andy Dirks hit a home run for the third consecutive day, giving him six, and he also had a hit in the three-run third inning which gave Verlander some cushion.

"I’ve been working in the cage with Mac, trying to find some stuff that works for me, and get me back locked in," Dirks said, referring to hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. "I kind of lost it there for a little bit. But that’s part of the game. You just keep battling."

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