DETROIT -- Justin Verlander’s stroll from the visiting dugout to the mound brought the rare combination of Mets and Tigers fans to their feet -- one side welcoming his Mets debut, the other side remembering his greatness on this same mound for years as a Tiger.
"I grew up here. I was here for 12-plus years, drafted here and obviously spent a lot of fun years here. I think any athlete in any situation when they gave that much to an organization and that much of their career somewhere, it's nice to hear the ovation, to hear the applause,” Verlander said. “That's a fan's way of saying thank you."
As Eduardo Rodriguez walked back to the Detroit dugout eight scoreless innings later, a handful of Mets fans joined Tigers fans in an ovation. The second billing in Thursday’s pitching duel at Comerica Park was that good. He has been for nearly a month.
With eight scoreless innings on two hits, one walk and nine strikeouts, Rodriguez pitched the Tigers to a three-game series sweep of the Mets, riding back-to-back first-inning homers from Riley Greene and Javier Báez for a 2-0 win. In the process, Rodriguez continued a run of starts even stingier than Verlander’s glory days in Detroit.
Rodriguez, who took a perfect-game bid into the seventh inning two starts ago in Baltimore, has allowed two runs over his last five starts. In that span, the lefty has held opposing batters to 18 hits over 34 2/3 innings, with four walks and 33 strikeouts.
“I don't feel like I've ever had [a stretch of] starts like that,” Rodriguez said.
No Tigers starter in the Comerica Park era has run off a five-start stretch with so many innings and so few runs allowed. Michael Fulmer came closest in his AL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2016, allowing one run over 34 1/3 innings, including four consecutive scoreless outings. He walked 10 and struck out 30 in that span.
For a young lineup still trying to put together a consistent offense, it’s a godsend.
“It's awesome,” said catcher Jake Rogers, who went hitless in his first faceoff with Verlander since being traded for him in 2017, but threw out two would-be basestealers. “We just want a chance to win, keep the score as low as we can. When Eduardo's doing this every week, it's a little easier to win. You can score one or two and win. Can't really beat it.”
For Greene, that included the launch angle and hard contact he has been seeking. A hanging curveball from Verlander was just what he needed to crush a line drive over the right-field fence at 106.8 mph. It was his fifth-hardest-hit ball of the season according to Statcast, but his hardest-hit home run.
“He’s really good at what he does and he’s been doing it for a long time now,” Greene said of Verlander. “When there's a big crowd, we feed off it. We look up and we're like, `Yeah, let's go,' and we give it one percent more.”
Two pitches later, Báez got a 95 mph fastball and sent it deep to right-center for another homer.
“Really huge,” Báez said. “The game stayed like that.”
Tommy Pham’s second-inning single, Starling Marte’s bloop single to left-center leading off the fourth inning and Brandon Nimmo’s ninth-inning knock accounted for New York’s only hits of the day. Rodriguez retired his last 15 batters, just four of whom hit the ball to the outfield. He struck out the middle of the Mets' lineup in order in the seventh.
The Mets’ balls in play averaged 83.1 mph in exit velocity. The hardest-hit ball left the bat at 101 mph -- a Pete Alonso fly ball to the warning track in the fourth. Only one other ball topped 100 mph.
The irony of the scene is that the more Rodriguez pitches like this, the more likely he could become a former Tiger like Verlander. Rodriguez has an opt-out clause in his contract at season’s end. He could make $49 million over the next three seasons in Detroit, or test the market and see if last winter’s free agent splurge repeats.
The Tigers, in turn, could see if his success makes him valuable enough to contenders to net them an influx of young talent in a trade around the Trade Deadline.
Nobody’s thinking of that yet. After beating ex-Tigers Verlander and Max Scherzer in consecutive games, they’re going to enjoy this.
“With timely hits, we're a good team. I believe that,” Rogers said. “We're a bunch of grinders ready to win.”