Detroit ace takes bid into seventh inning at Minute Maid Park
Special to MLB.com
HOUSTON -- For a while, it looked as if it might turn into a numbers game Sunday. Would Justin Verlander's pitch count get too high and prevent him from attempting to complete the third no-hitter of his career?
Houston's Carlos Pena saved the Tigers a lot of angst when he lined a single to right with one out in the seventh to derail Verlander's no-hitter.
Verlander (4-2) ended up allowing two singles in seven innings. He struck out nine, and the offense hit four home runs to help Detroit complete a four-game sweep of the Astros with a 9-0 victory at Minute Maid Park.
"I really wasn't thinking about the pitch count," Verlander said. "It really is a non-issue at that point. It's kind of out of my hands. I was early. But I started getting in the sixth, seventh inning, I wasn't thinking about it. You can't play the what-if, should-have, could-have game."
Detroit manager Jim Leyland was more than happy the way it worked out, Verlander leaving after the seventh inning. He threw 116 pitches, 10 fewer than his season high.
"His pitch count was fine," Leyland said. "He wasn't going to throw too many pitches because of his no-hitter, I can tell you that. I didn't think he had a chance to get there because of the pitch count. There were just too many early for it to work out late.
"I had 125 in mind. With a possible 130 max. It didn't look like he was going to get there. I don't worry about it. I worry about Justin Verlander's career and the Detroit Tigers. I wish he would have got it, but I'm glad I didn't get put in that dilemma. It turned out to be one of those what ifs you don't have worry about."
Verlander pitched Detroit's last no-hitter, May 7, 2011, at Toronto. He also pitched the first no-hitter at Comerica Park June 12, 2007, against Milwaukee. He didn't get his third, but the Astros were clearly overmatched.
"We're trying to do our best," said Houston's Carlos Corporan, who got the other single off Verlander. "I feel like I faced three different pitchers every at-bat. He was changing speeds. My first at-bat he was throwing 87 [mph], my second at-bat he was throwing 96 and my third at-bat he was throwing 97."
Detroit's starting catcher Alex Avila, who usually works with Verlander, felt ill Sunday morning and did not play, moving backup Brayan Pena into the starting lineup.
"I call my own game," Verlander said. "It's more along the lines of [my catcher] being on the same page as what I want to throw. Alex has been out there with me and we can get in a groove where he knows what I'm thinking. Pena's gotten the same way. Every time I go out there, he's gotten better and better."
Pena found out he would start when he arrived at the ballpark about 10 a.m. CT.
"Anytime you're behind home plate [with Verlander] you know something special is going to happen," he said. "He just attack, attack, attack. It was a dream. He goes out there like its zero-zero. For him to bounce back after that first inning was amazing. After that he was just cruising.
"We've been down the road before. I thought I would get kind of nervous. Put the right finger down. He calmed me down. I got excited a little bit at the end."
The Tigers scored seven runs in the first two innings to allow Verlander more freedom in how he pitched.
"I'm more aggressive," he said. "I try to get ahead of guys. I'm pitching to contact."
Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who drove in six runs in Saturday's win, made a diving stop of a hard grounder by Brandon Laird in the fifth inning. Cabrera, throwing from a sitting position, managed to get the ball to Prince Fielder at first base on one hop to beat Laird.
"When I saw him dive for it, I hoped he could get up quickly and make a nice throw," Verlander said. "When I saw him throw a grenade, I didn't know if it would get there. What a great play. It kept [the no-hitter] going for a while."
The victory accounted for Detroit's first four-game sweep on the road since May 22-25, 2006, at Kansas City.
Brayan Pena also hit a two-run homer in the second inning, his first, to keep the Tigers rolling along.
Fielder led the Detroit offense with three hits, a two-run homer off a changeup in the first inning, his eighth, a two-run single in the second and a leadoff single in the ninth.
"Anytime you score a lot of runs, its fun. And our pitching has been outstanding," Fielder said. "That's the sign of a good team. The whole lineup's doing well.
"It's usually a good feeling when you've got Verlander going and you've won the first three.
The Astros lost two close games to start the series, then were outscored 26-2 in the last two.
"I have had trouble with them in the past, but I think a lot of guys have," said Houston starter Philip Humber, who allowed eight runs on eight hits in four innings. "It's a tough lineup and at the same time you have to hope for a better result than that to go out and put our team in a hole."