On Thursday, in a 7-5 win over the Indians at Comerica Park, they showed they can win ugly, which they may have to do often if they are going to capture a fourth consecutive AL Central title.
In beating Cleveland and splitting a shortened series, Detroit overcame command issues on Verlander's fastball, leading to four innings of hold-on-to-your-seat relief pitching. Verlander's pitch count climbed to 113 by the end of the fifth inning, signaling an end to his day that came much quicker than desired.
"Justin wasn't himself in the sense that he didn't go very deep in the game," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "But he obviously still kept us in the game."
Though he ended up with the win, Verlander's string of quality starts that dated back to Sept. 27, 2013 came to an end because he didn't last the requisite six innings. He struck out seven, walked four and surrendered six hits in his fourth start of the season and shortest since Aug. 27.
"It's nice to be on the other end and pick him up," said Joba Chamberlain, who played an important role in what Ausmus described as a "patchwork of relief pitchers" that was called upon to slam the door on the Indians. "He gave us a chance to win. It was our job to come in and hold it down for him."
Chamberlain pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings at arguably the game's most crucial juncture. He helped out Ian Krol, who needed a strong gust of wind to keep a potential game-tying shot off the bat of Asdrubal Cabrera foul in the seventh inning. In the previous at-bat, Michael Brantley knocked a two-run blast to right field to cut the Detroit lead to one.
Perhaps the only aspect of the Tigers' win that wasn't ugly was the performance of second baseman Ian Kinsler, who built the Detroit lead. Kinsler further endeared himself to his new home fans and continued his fast start with a three-run homer off a fifth-inning Danny Salazar fastball. His four-RBI performance provided a sizable jolt to the Tigers offense, which entered Thursday in desperate need of one, having scored just nine runs in the previous four games.
Salazar retired the first eight Tigers and limited damage until Detroit's four-run fifth.
"He lost his control a little that inning," Kinsler said of Salazar, who threw 4 2/3 innings of six-hit, five-run ball. "Just a really good pitch to drive there."
Kinsler also ripped a run-scoring single in the sixth, doubling his season RBI total Thursday.
With the Tigers ahead by a run in the top of the eighth, Cleveland's Michael Bourn attempted a steal of second off Chamberlain, who Ausmus said is often slow in his delivery. Instead of allowing the tying run to reach scoring position, Chamberlain kept Bourn near the bag, allowing Detroit catcher Alex Avila to throw him out.
"He's fast, and you know he's probably going to get into scoring position, especially in that situation," Chamberlain said. "It's just being able to hold and give Alex a chance. That's all we can do as pitchers, being able to execute a pitch and give him a chance."
Sloppy defense on the part of the Detroit infield, which made three errors, forced the Tigers to play from behind twice and did little to prevent the excess work for Verlander. Though all three runs scored on Verlander were unearned, he failed to help his own cause.
Verlander's throwing error on a fourth-inning bunt single by Cabrera set up the Indians' first run. The following batter, David Murphy, blooped a single to left that a diving Rajai Davis barely missed securing, giving Cleveland an early one-run lead.
The heart of the Detroit order quickly responded off Salazar in the bottom of the frame. Consecutive singles by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez put runners on the corners, and Austin Jackson delivered a sacrifice fly to center that tied the game.
Thursday was just the second multihit game of the season for Cabrera.
With two men out in the fifth, Mike Aviles' grounder right at Tigers' third baseman Nick Castellanos passed right under the rookie's glove, extending the frame. Two batters later, Brantley singled home a pair of runs and Cleveland led, 3-1.
That's when Kinsler took over, and the Detroit bullpen survived a significant test. Closer Joe Nathan, who has already blown two saves, got back on track with a perfect ninth inning.
"Great location today," Ausmus said of Nathan. "He was hitting the corners today, which is what he did so well last year."
The Tigers hadn't won since Saturday, and off-days and weather postponements have thwarted any momentum the team could yet put together. Asked if a game like Thursday's -- in which Detroit won despite not firing on all cylinders -- could start a streak, Kinsler was cautiously optimistic.
"You never know in this game," Kinsler said. "This game humbles you very quickly, so you have to be prepared to win every day. One's a start."