CHICAGO -- It was the bottom of the seventh inning on Tuesday night, and Justin Verlander was in a jam. Tie game, runners on first and third, one out.
The 1-1 pitch to Marcus Semien was a high slider, and with a safety squeeze play on, Semien couldn't do better than pushing a foul down the first-base line. After a visit to the mound from Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and catcher Bryan Holaday, Verlander threw a low slider that Semien swung on and missed -- a strikeout that Verlander had to have.
That brought White Sox leadoff man Adam Eaton to the plate. And when he went down flailing at a curveball in the dirt, he was so angry that he slammed the bat to the ground and then broke it over his knee.
As if Eaton didn't know this was exactly what Verlander had been doing all four of those years when Eaton was in the Minor Leagues torching pitchers who would sell their souls to have Verlander's combination of talent, polish and, well, toughness.
Verlander is 31, he's been ridden extremely hard -- 55 career 120-pitch starts, including five in a row in one high-pressure stretch in 2010 -- and yet he has not tired of pitching in big spots.
"The one thing about Ver that kind of coincides with a lot of very good pitchers I've played with, is that on game day, he's all business," Ausmus said. "He's got the headphones on, he's looking at video, he's studying the scouting reports. He's all business. I've played with a number of very talented pitchers. Roger Clemens was the same way, Randy Johnson was the same way. A lot of the really good pitchers, they're almost a different personality on the days they pitch."
You knew Verlander had his edge early on Tuesday. When umpires called for the tarp after he had warmed up in the rain for the bottom of the first inning, he hung around to give crew chief Jerry Layne a hard time, no doubt wondering why the game had been started if it was going to be stopped only four batters in.
"I wasn't too happy about that," Verlander said.
The delay lasted just 21 minutes, but the Tigers are tired of waiting. Because of three rainouts and five scheduled off-days, they have played the fewest games in the Majors, causing them to feel rusty.
But still they pulled out a victory with a go-ahead bunt single by Holaday off reliever Ronald Belisario in the ninth inning, breaking a 3-3 tie. Joe Nathan nailed down a 4-3 win, credited to reliever Joba Chamberlain after Verlander did the heavy lifting.
"Overall, he pitched well," Ausmus said. "He gave up three runs in one inning, and other than that, he was outstanding. I think he's been a little frustrated, like a lot of people in this clubhouse, with the schedule and the extra rest -- five days, six days, seven days. We're hoping that we have the tough part of the schedule, with the fluidity behind us, and move on to a more rhythm-based pitching rotation."
There was nothing particularly noteworthy about Verlander's 31st career start against the White Sox. He wound up with a no-decision, allowing three runs on six hits in seven innings, with only four strikeouts.
But the thing to remember was how the outing ended. Verlander wasn't about to let the upstart White Sox and their newly explosive lineup beat him.
And now Verlander will pass the baton to 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who faces the White Sox on Wednesday.
Asked about facing Verlander and Scherzer on back-to-back days, White Sox manager Robin Ventura compared it to facing the Red Sox in 2004, when they had Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling.
That's saying a lot. Most people rank that duo as one of the best 1-2 combinations in history, just as the pairing of Schilling and Randy Johnson worked for the D-backs. The best was probably Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, although all have their own favorites.
Among the pairings that come quickly to mind: Warren Spahn/Lew Burdette, Early Wynn/Bob Lemon, Catfish Hunter/Ken Holtzman, Jim Palmer/Mike Cuellar, Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine and Roy Halladay /Cliff Lee. There are plenty of others worth mentioning.
The point here is that Verlander and Scherzer are working their way onto the list, if they are not already there. If you're going to beat the Tigers this season, in the regular season or the playoffs, you're going to have to beat Verlander and Scherzer.
After this season, who knows? Scherzer heads toward free agency, having turned down a contract extension in Spring Training.
That this could be their last season together makes this time even more precious for them and their Detroit teammates.
Scherzer only emerged from Verlander's shadow in the past two years. But since June 2, they have guided the Tigers to a 71-40 record in their starts. That's a .640 winning percentage, or the equivalent of a 104-win season.
Talk about a huge edge.
Verlander has not historically dominated the White Sox, but he has always seemed to win when it matters the most. A victory on Tuesday would have been a momentum-builder for the White Sox, who are leading the AL in scoring and had just taken three of four from the Rays.
But when the go-ahead run was on third in the seventh inning, Verlander's instincts kicked in. He saw Semien squaring to bunt, a tick too soon for the good of the play, and made an adjustment on the fly. That high 1-1 slider was a huge key in turning the game.
"When I saw him turn around and square, I didn't want to give him an easy pitch to bunt," said Verlander, who ends April with a 3-1 record and a 2.48 ERA. "I just sort of flailed it, a slider. … I thought it might be a squeeze. I didn't want to give them an easy run there, so I just sort of threw it up and in."
Then Verlander took care of Eaton with the wicked curveball. He walked to the dugout knowing he was turning a 3-3 tie, not a 4-3 deficit, over to the bullpen.
"It's huge," Verlander said of stopping the rally. "That's the difference between a win and a loss, even though you don't know what's going to happen. Keeping your team tied, with a chance to win, there's no better feeling."
Nor a more frustrating one for teams trying to stick one of the Tigers' two aces with a loss.