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08/29/09 10:15 PM ET

Verlander's numbers get even better

Tampa Bay (70-58) at Detroit (68-60), 1:05 p.m. ET

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander has spent a large portion of the summer on the fringe of the American League Cy Young Award debate, following faster starters such as Kansas City's Zack Greinke, Boston's Josh Beckett and the Yankees' CC Sabathia. Sunday could be his chance to vault into the center of conversation.

With Beckett's winless streak now up to three starts, all of them rough outings, and Sabathia taking a rare no-decision in his last outing Friday against the White Sox, Verlander could move into a tie for the AL lead in wins with a victory Sunday against the Rays. Add in his still-imposing lead among AL pitchers in strikeouts, and he could have a share of two-thirds of the pitching Triple Crown, to go with a 3.38 ERA that stands seventh in the league among pitchers with enough innings to qualify.

Considering the Tigers' offensive struggles for most of this season, Verlander and fellow starter Edwin Jackson are going to get a good share of credit if Detroit wins the AL Central to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2006. A well-pitched game Sunday against the defending AL champions and Wild Card contenders could go a long way on that front, too.

Four pitchers have topped the Junior Circuit in strikeouts and wins in the same season since Detroit's Mickey Lolich in 1971. Lolich is the last of them to not win a Cy Young Award. But then, all four since Lolich -- Johan Santana in '06, Pedro Martinez in '99, and Roger Clemens in '97 and '98 -- took the AL wins and strikeouts lead along with an ERA title to complete the Triple Crown.

Verlander isn't likely to gain enough in ERA to bridge that gap, especially considering that two of the pitchers in front of him are teammates -- Jackson and Jarrod Washburn. Still, Verlander could present an interesting consideration for voters at year's end.

Verlander's performance in big games adds to his resume. His eight scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Aug. 13 essentially salvaged one victory out of that four-game series with a 2-0 decision. A complete-game six-hitter against the White Sox on July 24 set the tone for a doubleheader sweep to start off that four-game, three-day set. His seven strong innings at Yankee Stadium on July 18 at least gave Detroit a shot before two runs sent him down to defeat.

If the Tigers are going to do more than split their four-game series with the Rays, and continue their dominant record at home, they'll need a win Sunday to set them up for it with Monday's wraparound series finale.

Pitching matchup
DET: RHP Justin Verlander (14-7, 3.38 ERA)
Verlander will make his first start since his much-replayed argument with catcher Gerald Laird in the visiting dugout at Angel Stadium following a four-run sixth inning that saw him knocked out of the game. Verlander got the win anyway, considering he had a 10-run lead entering the inning, but manager Jim Leyland called it a lesson for his young ace on how to approach a game in which he's comfortably ahead. Verlander beat the Rays in his only meeting with them last year, in his season finale.

TB: RHP Jeff Niemann (12-5, 3.87 ERA)
Niemann pitched a flawed masterpiece at Toronto on Monday night, when he survived a five-run second inning to pitch 6 1/3 innings, besting Roy Halladay in the process to pick up his team-leading 12th win of the season. Niemann allowed a grand slam to Rod Barajas and appeared ready for an early shower against the Blue Jays, but he managed to find some reserve of toughness to get him through the rest of the outing. Niemann stands 6-foot-9, which creates a difficult downward angle for opposing hitters. He is 0-1 with a 3.00 ERA in one career appearance against the Tigers.

Carl Crawford is 5-for-9 (.556) lifetime against Verlander, while B.J. Upton is 3-for-7 (.429) with a double and a three-run homer. ... Armando Galarraga is scheduled to throw a side session Sunday that should determine how soon he can resume pitching. Galarraga played catch Friday but wasn't quite ready to progress. An MRI exam taken by doctors earlier in the week showed no structural damage in his inflamed left elbow. ... Dontrelle Willis is scheduled to make a rehab start for Triple-A Toledo on Sunday against Indianapolis. It would be his first outing since a sore right hip knocked him out in the second inning against Columbus on Aug. 19. ... Speaking of rehab outings, Jeremy Bonderman gave up two hits and struck out two in his inning of relief for the Mud Hens on Friday.

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On the Internet
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•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

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Up next
• Monday: Rays (James Shields, 8-10, 3.81) at Tigers (Jarrod Washburn, 9-7, 3.23), 1:05 p.m. ET
• Tuesday: Indians (David Huff, 8-7, 6.57) at Tigers (Edwin Jackson, 10-6, 2.96), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Indians (Aaron Laffey, 7-3, 3.40) at Tigers (Rick Porcello, 11-8, 4.27), 7:05 p.m. ET

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.