Watching Verlander is like a slice of heaven
One of the really remarkable things about Justin Verlander is watching the people around him attempt to explain his greatness.
"You have no idea," Tigers catcher Alex Avilla said one day last spring. "It's amazing how good he is when he's just out in the bullpen working on stuff."
That's the kind of thing you hear from virtually everyone with the Tigers, from Verlander's teammates and coaches, from his manager and from the front-office executives who marvel at his gifts, work ethic and determination.
Every once in awhile, a guy comes along who seems to be playing in a different league. That's how it is with Verlander these days.
When scouts evaluate amateur players, they look for the kids who do one thing better than everyone else. That one thing could be a blazing fastball or a knee-buckling curveball. It could be the ability to change speeds or command the strike zone.
But the point is they're looking for one really special gift that can be polished and refined. For instance, if a pitcher can come up with one more pitch, if he just has a fastball-slider combination or a fastball-changeup combination, he's good enough to make the Major Leagues.
Verlander is special, because he has a fastball that's among the very best in the game. In the last few innings Friday night, as he attempted to close out his third career no-hitter, he was throwing it consistently between 96-99 mph. He moved it in and out, up and down.
The thing that makes Verlander's 99-mph fastball even better is that he also has one of the best curveballs in the game and a changeup that makes hitters look absolutely silly. There are pitchers who've had very nice careers with just one of those three gifts.
There were moments in those final three innings against the Pirates when the whole thing didn't look like a fair fight. In the eighth inning, Verlander struck out Casey McGehee and Nate McLouth on fastballs that were clocked at 98 and 99 mph.
Here's where it gets good. Clint Barmes watched McLouth swing and miss on a heater, then watched McGehee take one for strike three.
At this point, with Verlander needing just four more outs, with him close enough to touch it and feel it and smell it, Barmes had to know what was coming. He surely was focused on Verlander's power, only to strike out on an 86-mph slider that appeared to be as close to unhittable.
Michael McKenry opened the ninth by grounding a 99-mph fastball weakly to shortstop, and now at Comerica Park, most of the 41,661 fans were standing and screaming for what was about to happen. Verlander had gotten Josh Harrison to fly out on a curveball in the sixth inning.
Verlander stayed with the breaking ball in the ninth, throwing him five in a row, getting two quick strikes, then a foul ball to keep the count at 0-2. He missed with one, and then threw one that stayed a bit high in the strike zone, one that was lined to center and ended the no-hitter.
If you're inclined to second-guess Verlander for not going back to the fastball, or even to a changeup, go right ahead.
That's the other thing it's important to know about Verlander. No pitcher in baseball works harder or is more prepared. No pitcher has a clearer idea of what he's attempting to do with each hitter.
"He has tunnel vision like no one I've ever seen," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I mean, he does everything with a purpose. He has a plan every single day when he walks in the door, and nothing is going to stop him."
Anyway, after Harrison's single went up the middle, Verlander shrugged quickly and leaned back and smiled. Before he could throw the next pitch, the fans who'd been on their feet began to applaud, loudly and warmly.
These are wonderful times to root for the Tigers, because all the pieces appear to be in place. They've stumbled out of the gate, and a lot of people are waiting for them to catch fire and begin a sprint into October.
Along the way, there'll be all kinds of sweet moments, a moment to leave the ballpark feeling that you've just seen something you'll remember for a long, long time.
That's how it was Friday night at Comerica Park. To see Verlander at the top of his game is one of the real special things this game has to offer.
Anyway, after the ovation had ended, Verlander got back on the mound and got two ground balls to end the game. On a night when he flirted with history, he settled for his sixth shutout and the one-hitter.
By the time Verlander was done, he'd reminded all of us why he's special and why we've been so lucky to be able to watch him work.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.