Kelly keys five-run fifth behind vintage Verlander
Ace-like performance backed by outfielder's mastery of Masterson
CLEVELAND -- Justin Verlander was back, and he didn't want to leave.
He had thrown 106 pitches through seven innings on Tuesday night against the Indians, and he thought he had enough left to stay in for another inning as he walked down the tunnel. When he realized manager Jim Leyland had the bullpen going, he came back out and made a deal.
"I just told him, 'Hey, I want this eighth. If we go three-up-three-down, great. If I put somebody on, you can take me out,'" Verlander said. "And he goes, 'All right, I'll give it to you.' That's all I needed to hear."
Six pitches later, Verlander was back in the dugout, having retired the Indians on three easy outs. Three outs after that, the Tigers were celebrating another win over their American League Central pursuers, this one a 5-1 victory, and a 10-game winning streak.
They had a lot more to celebrate than that. If Verlander can keep pitching like this, they have their ace back.
"I thought tonight was the most locked in and focused he has been in a while," Leyland said.
Detroit has built its division lead while Verlander has worked to rebuild his game. Detroit's five-game lead is its largest since June 17, and its winning streak is the first double-digit run the team has had since running away with the division in September 2011.
The Tigers have held opponents to two runs or fewer nine times during the streak, including the last seven games. Their starters are 8-0 with a 1.25 ERA during the winning streak, allowing just 46 hits over 72 innings, with 16 walks and 53 strikeouts.
Detroit has now gone two full turns through the rotation in the streak and averaged better than seven innings per start. Verlander closed the first turn with a decent outing but walked five Nationals over six innings. This time it was vintage Verlander.
If he can repeat this, the Tigers will be frightening.
"He seemed to find another gear tonight that we've unfortunately seen in the past," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "When he starts hitting 100 [mph] at the knees, and then snapping a breaking ball off, that's tough."
Verlander twice hit 100 mph on the Progressive Field radar gun, but velocity wasn't his problem. He could throw hard if he didn't care where the ball went.
What he did on Tuesday was blend velocity with control. The control is what was missing.
Verlander fell behind Nick Swisher in the first inning, then struck him out chasing a 97-mph high heater. He hit 97 mph and 98 mph on back-to-back strikeouts of Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera in the fourth, the former on a called third strike. Then he sent ex-teammate Ryan Raburn flailing at a 99-mph fastball in the fifth.
"For whatever reason," Leyland said, "he went out there really aggressive and turned it loose."
A pair of 100-mph fastballs came in the sixth with runners on second and third. Kipnis fouled off the first on a 2-1 pitch before taking an offspeed offering for a strike. The other jammed Cabrera into an inning-ending groundout.
"He was locating it at 96, 97," Don Kelly said. "It wasn't like he had to try to throw 91, 92 and locate it."
Kelly could see that all the way from left field. But then, considering the way he saw everything Justin Masterson threw at him, it's hard to question his eyesight.
Kelly started the game in left field over Andy Dirks based on his history with Masterson -- 8-for-21 lifetime, with a homer, going into the contest. His second-inning single off Masterson loaded the bases with nobody out, but Masterson escaped with back-to-back strikeouts of Alex Avila and Jose Iglesias before a Ramon Santiago ground ball ended the threat.
Masterson (13-8) seemingly rolled from there, but he lost command in the fifth and hit three things he shouldn't have: Santiago's left knee on a bunt attempt, Victor Martinez's right foot on a first pitch with two outs and a runner on, and Kelly's bat.
Martinez's hit-by-pitch extended the inning for Kelly, who sent a drive to right for his fifth home run of the year. The three-run shot powered a five-run fifth inning that included a Miguel Cabrera double off the wall in left-center field that gave him his 100th RBI of the year.
With that run-scoring hit, Cabrera clinched his 10th consecutive 100-RBI season. He is just the fourth Major League player age 30 or younger with that many 100-RBI campaigns. Albert Pujols and Jimmie Foxx put theirs up consecutively as well; Alex Rodriguez had 10 in his first 11 seasons.
"He loves facing me," Masterson said of Kelly. "If I was Superman, he'd be my kryptonite, especially this year, with a couple of homers. Guess there's always a guy. He salivates when I get up there. … How it happens, I don't know."
Kelly doesn't know, either, but he saw the pitches well enough that he could identify each one that he hit, including the four-seam fastball Masterson tried to bust in on him that he hit out.
"Obviously, he's a great pitcher," Kelly said. "I can't explain it. I just see him well. I mean, when you have a guy who throws 96 mph with a sinker, slider, changeup, it's just one of those things. ... I guess I just see the ball well."
The way Verlander was going, that was the ballgame, as he retired the final nine batters he faced.
Verlander said his success was the result of an adjustment he made in his side session, moving his landing foot more in line toward the hitter and opening his delivery more.
"It's not a huge difference, but there is a difference," Verlander said.
He's smart enough not to guarantee that it'll stick. He has had promising gems before, only to struggle the next time out. Still, this felt different.
"I am excited," he admitted. "I'm excited, obviously, to see the adjustment that I made make not just a little impact, I thought it was a big impact today. Everything I've been searching for, I was able to find it today. So that's obviously a huge stride in the right direction."