ST. PETERSBURG -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland kept saying Monday they were walking into a hornet's nest at Tropicana Field. The way Justin Verlander keeps spotting curveballs and fastballs on the corner, he makes a pretty decent flyswatter.
Even after the Tigers got to Jeff Niemann for a 5-2 victory over the Rays in their series opener, Leyland was saying they might be facing the best rotation in baseball, top to bottom. But the way Verlander keeps winning, he's leaving little doubt about the best pitcher to top a rotation this year.
Seven innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts from Verlander left one huge sense of relief on Leyland and added another game to Detroit's AL Central lead -- now 5 1/2 games on the Indians, who lost in the ninth inning to the Mariners on Monday night, and the White Sox, who were idle. It pushed the Tigers 11 games over .500 for the first time all season.
It also left Verlander (19-5) on the cusp of history -- not just at becoming Detroit's first 20-game winner in 20 years since Bill Gullickson, but potentially getting there by the end of August.
No Major League pitcher has had 20 wins by the end of August since Curt Schilling in 2002. No Tiger has had 19 wins this early in the season since Mickey Lolich in 1972, during the days of the four-man rotation. Verlander will get his shot at 20 on Saturday against the Twins, the next stop on the road trip.
Verlander isn't looking at the records right now.
"I'll say it time and again, those things are total season stats," he said. "Those things are meant to be looked at at the end of the season."
But that's for later. Right now, Leyland is just trying to get out of Tampa Bay with some wins. Getting the first one was huge for him, which was part of the reason why Verlander pitched this game and not a day earlier to try to sink the Indians.
"I thought it was important to start this road trip with him pitching the first game," Leyland said, "because this, to me, is a tough road trip. You're coming into a hornet's nest in here. That's a team that's got a better record than we do. They shut teams down. And I felt like, you know what, that could work out for the good for us."
That in itself says volumes about Verlander's season. As much as Leyland worried about the Rays and their pitching, he knew what Verlander could do in turn. And though Niemann indeed pitched some shutdown innings, putting Verlander in a pitching duel through the seventh, Verlander never let him off the hook after Alex Avila's two-run home run in the second inning.
"You get him a couple runs of support, and he's going to try to get you a 'W'," said Delmon Young, whose eighth-inning double set up two big insurance runs to help ensure Verlander's seventh win in his past seven starts. "And he's going to pitch as long as he can. He's not looking for help, and that's all you can ask of a bulldog on the mound."
It was a lot about carrying the team, and a little about carrying a long memory. The Rays were the one team to truly rough up Verlander on the mound this year, having knocked him around for six runs in as many innings May 24 at Comerica Park. The Tigers pulled out that game anyway, and Verlander went on to win his next seven starts after that, but Verlander kept it in the memory bank for a time when it could help him.
"I felt like, earlier, I got away from my game plan against these guys," he said. "Tonight, I just decided I'm going to go with what I do best and see what happens."
He shrugged off the lone run he gave up on his fourth pitch of the night, a 95 mph fastball tagged by his former Tigers teammate Matt Joyce for his 17th home run of the year. From there, only one Ray reached scoring position against him. That came on Johnny Damon's sixth-inning double, which was Tampa Bay's first hit since Evan Longoria's one-out single in the first.
Verlander walked three between those hits, but he struck out twice that many during that span.
"The phrase has always been solo home runs don't hurt you," Verlander said. "That isn't always the case, but you have to think about that when you're in this type of game, hope that's all they get."
It's easier to think that way when a home run in the next inning puts you in front.
Avila's 15th home run of the year was the only offensive support for Verlander while he was actually in the game. Minutes after Victor Martinez's scratch from the starting lineup with lower back spasms moved Avila up to the fifth spot -- right behind Miguel Cabrera -- he followed Cabrera's leadoff single in the second inning by lofting a fly ball to left that sent Sam Fuld back to the fence until he ran out of room.
Jhonny Peralta followed with a single, but Niemann (8-5) settled down to retire 15 of Detroit's next 16 batters.
"He really did pitch well enough to win tonight," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Against a lot of other pitchers, he might have. Once Verlander got the lead back, however, he didn't have much of a chance. Verlander has won seven straight starts for the second time this season, tied for the Major League season high with Ian Kennedy and CC Sabathia.
His season has as much late life as his games.
"He's awful good," Leyland said. "With what he's done, you can't expect him to continue the roll he's been on, but he's been amazing."