MINNEAPOLIS -- Justin Verlander is back.
OK, he's not back, but he has returned. Even in rusty form, he makes a difference.
"He's been around. He has that experience. No matter if he had that velo or not," Torii Hunter said after Saturday's 8-6 Tigers win salvaged a doubleheader split with the Twins.
In a game that was as close to must-win as the Tigers have had in August in a while, Verlander didn't have to dominate in his first start back from shoulder inflammation. He didn't even have to get through the sixth, as much as he wanted to.
After back-to-back fill-in starters exited after four outs, Verlander just needed to pitch. It wasn't classic Verlander, but with 5 2/3 innings, it was enough for the Tigers to get to rookie Twins starter Trevor May, add on against Minnesota's bullpen, and then hold on in the ninth.
On a long day when the Tigers ran out of ideal scenarios, it was fitting. They lost a half-game to the Royals, now three games up in the American League Central, and the Mariners, now a game ahead for the final AL Wild Card spot. Losing a game and a half in both cases, however, would have changed the shape of the race -- especially to the Royals, who would have been four up.
"We needed this one," Verlander said. "We definitely needed to win this one, especially the way we lost our last couple, pretty demoralizing losses. And me coming into this game, I knew that [the Twins] were going to be locked in."
After 32 runs allowed over the previous two games -- the fourth-highest two-game total off Tigers pitching in franchise history -- the Twins were rolling. Even with the win, the 38 runs allowed this series are the most they've allowed over any three-game stretch since the 1996 team that finished with a 6.38 ERA.
Verlander gave up four of the six runs Saturday night. Even by his standards, that was good enough.
"I made some pitches when I had to against a lineup that's really swinging the bat well," he said. "Hopefully today cooled them down a little bit."
For his teammates, it was a godsend. For a team that Hunter felt needed energy, having Verlander on the mound was a boost before he threw a pitch.
"The first two games, we had some young guys on the mound," Hunter said. "Of course, they're going to get better and they're going to learn from some of the mistakes they probably made. But I promise you, having Verlander on the mound, a guy that's been around, that knows how to pitch, I think that he contained the situation and gave us a chance to win."
Part of the situation arose from a Twins lineup that hit pitches that Verlander executed. Part arose from his own command, which showed in his struggles to hit his spots with his secondary pitches.
"I could tell there was some rust," Verlander said. "I think I probably threw one or two pitches where I wanted my whole bullpen [session pregame]. But you turn the page, go into the game and you just gotta flip the switch and go out there and execute."
Verlander also tired, an inconceivable notion for him under healthy circumstances, even during his early-season struggles. His fastball hit 94 mph in the first inning, topped out at 95, then fell as low as 87-88 in the middle innings before rebounding again.
"His arm action looked much freer than it did, much easier than it did in Pittsburgh [10 days earlier]," manager Brad Ausmus said. "I think his fastball had more life."
Even so, Verlander was in damage control after Trevor Plouffe's two-run double fueled a three-run third inning for a 4-2 Twins lead. Verlander gave up six hits in the second and third innings combined, then changed speeds and elevation more often. He retired seven in an eight-batter stretch while stranding Danny Santana after a fourth-inning triple.
The Tigers' offense responded. May entered Saturday with nine earned runs on 10 hits and 13 walks over nine innings on the season, but defied the small sample size for a while. Once the Twins decided to give May the sixth inning, however, the Tigers pounced with three straight one-out hits from the bottom half of the order, capped by Eugenio Suarez's go-ahead two-run double.
Nick Castellano's two-out, two-run single in the seventh added on.
"It was a no-brainer. We had to go out there and come with a little more fight," Hunter said. "We lost the last two, and we lost big."