Verlander delivers in big spot for Tigers
Ace bears down in eighth to avoid Red Sox season sweep
BOSTON -- Justin Verlander leads the American League in strikeouts for good reason, and in games like Thursday's 2-0 Tigers win over the Red Sox, he doesn't get very many balls hit hard when hitters do make contact. But perhaps the best deception from Detroit's ace is how effortless he made 100-mph fastballs look as his afternoon wore on.
"It doesn't feel exactly smooth," Verlander said. "I was giving those pitches everything I had. I wasn't holding anything back."
The fastballs at 99 mph weren't any easier.
It wasn't just that Verlander threw 123 pitches Thursday afternoon, four off his season high, but how hard he threw so many of them, especially his last handful. He knew the gravity of the at-bat as Jason Bay stepped to the plate as the potential tying run with two outs in the eighth inning.
Verlander had overpowered Bay with fastballs all afternoon. Bay, who homered in each of the first three nights of the four-game series, swung through a 99-mph heater with runners at the corners and out in the opening inning, then again with runners at the corners in the third, before taking one for a walk in the sixth. With Verlander trying to get through the eighth, this was Bay's big opportunity to get to him.
The Tigers weren't going to change their plan. They didn't want to give him a breaking ball to hit out, catcher Gerald Laird said later, so they stuck to the plan of high fastballs.
The first came in about chest-high. The Fenway Park radar gun came up reading 99 mph.
The second pitch came in inches lower to get the strike call from home-plate umpire Scott Barry. The radar gun wasn't stuck, but it read 99 again.
"We're used to it," Ryan Raburn said. "He does that just about every game."
Same for the third pitch, which Verlander blew by Bay to put him in a 1-2 count.
One pitch away from getting out of the threat, Verlander reared back and found even more. Though the scoreboard in center field seems like a mile away, Verlander's 100-mph fastball seemed even further from contact as it drew oohs and aahs from a sellout crowd that had roared when Jacoby Ellsbury led off the inning with a double.
"There aren't many guys that have that in the tank at that point in the game," manager Jim Leyland said.
He hit triple digits on his 122nd pitch. Seconds later, he did it again on his 123rd. This time, Bay tried for it and missed again, giving Verlander his eighth strikeout of the afternoon.
"I knew that was going to be my last hitter, so I'm not leaving anything on the field," Verlander said. "I never leave anything out there. When you do that, win, lose or draw, when you come into the dugout and you're done, there's really no way you can hang your head, knowing you gave everything."
|"I never leave anything out there. When you do that, win, lose or draw, when you come into the dugout and you're done, there's really no way you can hang your head, knowing you gave everything."|
|-- Justin Verlander|
Bay gave everything he could to catch up. He swung at seven Verlander pitches Thursday, all but one of them fastballs. He made contact with one, a 97-mph pitch he fouled off on the third inning.
"He was phenomenal," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.
Hours after Leyland declared the Tigers' pitching situation "a mess" after so many quick exits and long innings, Verlander (13-6) cleaned it up. While Leyland and the Tigers talk about every game counting, everybody admitted this one meant more. Not only had they not beaten the Red Sox all series, they hadn't beaten them all year. Boston had never swept a season series from Detroit in a rivalry that began in 1901.
As many things that went wrong in this series, from the close loss in Monday's opener to Rick Porcello's ejection Tuesday, then Armando Galarraga's scratch with a sore throat Wednesday, Verlander took advantage of Raburn's fourth-inning RBI single and seventh-inning solo homer off Clay Buchholz (1-3) -- plus Miguel Cabrera's stop and throw from his backside for what ended up being a crucial out in the third -- and made them stick.
"Last couple innings, you could tell [Verlander meant business]," Laird said. "We needed this win. He didn't want to give it away. Basically, he was in complete control of the game. He had all his pitches working, in and out, and when it came in crunch time in the eighth, you're looking up and the radar gun says 100 mph. You just don't see that very often."
Verlander knew what it meant, too.
"Obviously, this was a tough series for us," Verlander said. "The guys are looking at me to go out and be a stopper, go out there and give us a chance today. I was able to do that, and our hitters picked me up. I just gave us a chance, and they scored a couple runs, and obviously they weren't easy runs. We had to battle for every hit they got. I'm really proud of those guys."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.