Verlander turns back the clock with vintage outing in Detroit

May 12th, 2024

DETROIT -- Many view the seventh-inning stretch as a good time for a break in the action, but wasn’t having any of that on Sunday afternoon.

While players on both sides milled about in their respective dugouts, Verlander sprinted to the mound to prepare for the bottom of the frame. He was the lone player on the field as the crowd worked through “God Bless America,” and though he turned respectfully toward the American flag in left-center during the singalong, his message was quite clear.

He didn’t need a break. He didn’t want a break. Whatever he’d plugged into at Comerica Park, he wanted to keep it going.

A moment later, he put a bow on his best start of the season, a seven-inning two-hit scoreless gem during the Astros' 9-3 win over the Tigers.

“He's on his way to Cooperstown for a reason,” said Spencer Torkelson, who struck out twice against Verlander. “I thought we had a good plan heading into it, capitalize on mistakes, then realized early on there wasn't going to be very many mistakes to capitalize on.”

Verlander held Detroit hitless through 4 2/3 frames and collected five strikeouts through his first three innings, one more than his past two starts combined. He finished with eight punchouts and now has 3,365 in his career, just two shy of former Tigers teammate Max Scherzer for No. 11 on the AL/NL all-time strikeouts list.

Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan tops the charts with 5,714.

Kyle Tucker’s two-run homer to right field in the sixth inning -- his MLB-leading 13th long ball of the season -- got Houston on the board. The Astros piled on seven runs late to win for the third time in four tries.

A mark of any great competitor is an ability to recognize a weakness and then work to erase it. So when Verlander said he was heading “back to the drawing board” after Tuesday’s outing against the Yankees, it was a safe bet that no one worked harder in the past five days.

“That's what makes him so good,” Astros manager Joe Espada said. “He's able to see things, feel things. He knows exactly what he needs to do and then goes out there and does what he did. That's why he's that good. That's a Hall of Famer.”

That Verlander would bring something special to the hill on Sunday was expected. That it came against the team that raised him was just icing on the cake.

When the Tigers’ first grounder -- Colt Keith’s 46.5 mph single -- dribbled to the left side to break up Verlander’s perfect-game bid, even that was erased when Keith was caught stealing to end the fifth, leaving Verlander pumping his fist in appreciation.

“There's a benefit to having been through a lot of bad starts and not-too-successful times in your career,” he said. “You have a lot of stuff to draw on from the past and know kind of what you need to do to fix it. There were a few adjustments I made, and you just never know until you step on the mound.”

Verlander left the mound in the Bronx less than a week ago with an honest self-criticism. He needed a change. Not a different pregame ritual or a minor tweak, but a shakeup. He’d done it twice before, in 2009 and ’17, and reaped rewards both times, so why not see what this time would bring?

Frustrated after a 2008 campaign that produced the most losses in his career (17), Verlander got under the hood and closed ’09 leading MLB in wins (19), starts (35), innings pitched (240) and strikeouts (269) and the AL in strikeouts per nine innings (10.1). He was traded to Houston at the waiver deadline in 2017 but still managed a respectable 15-8 record and 219 strikeouts between the Astros and Tigers.

With a new team came a new look, though, and 2018 Verlander earned his first All-Star nod since ’13 with 290 strikeouts and an MLB-best 7.84 strikeout-to-walk ratio. All of that before 2019, which brought an AL Cy Young Award, a career-high 300 strikeouts and a third career no-hitter.

When Verlander wants to tinker, it’s best to stand back and let him, but just because he made a five-day turnaround look easy doesn’t mean it was.

Verlander is just that good.

“He's probably the only one I've seen that can do that,” Espada said.

Look out, baseball. Verlander 4.0 is up and running.