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Relive Verlander's 2009 battle vs. Cliff Lee

@beckjason
May 22, 2020

DETROIT -- Tigers fans have been able to enjoy plenty of classic games from the glory years over the last couple months. Now, they get a pitchers' duel that stands out on its own, with a plot twist at the end. Neither the Tigers nor Indians made the postseason in

DETROIT -- Tigers fans have been able to enjoy plenty of classic games from the glory years over the last couple months. Now, they get a pitchers' duel that stands out on its own, with a plot twist at the end.

Neither the Tigers nor Indians made the postseason in 2009, though Detroit came within a one-game playoff of a division title. But on a Friday evening in May, Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee put on a pitching performance at Progressive Field that’s worth remembering a decade later, combining for 17 innings of one-run ball on nine hits with 16 strikeouts. It took a Clete Thomas infield single and a Curtis Granderson home-run robbery to decide a 1-0 Tigers win.

Five days after Verlander and Lee matched up at Comerica Park in a 3-1 Tigers victory, their rematch was even better. Verlander came to town with a 1-7 record and 9.00 ERA in eight career starts at Progressive Field, a place that would continue to haunt him throughout his Tiger tenure. But he silenced the venue on this night, and quieted the Indians lineup as well.

"I think when Justin Verlander pitches the way he's capable of pitching, I don't think there'll be a team that's his jinx," manager Jim Leyland said after the game. "I just don't believe that."

An Asrubal Cabrera first-inning single and Victor Martinez seventh-inning double comprised the only hits off Verlander, who retired 17 of 18 batters in between -- eight of them by strikeout. With a filthy combination of power fastball, big breaking ball and slider, he left Cleveland hitters flailing. Like Vintage Verlander, his velocity built as the game went on, up to 99 mph on his 114th pitch in the ninth inning.

Lee, the reigning AL Cy Young winner at the time, had gotten off to a rough start in 2009 but was coming out of it before the Tigers beat him in Detroit. He pitched his way out of trouble in each of his first four innings in the rematch but settled in from there, retiring 11 of 12 before Granderson drew a one-out walk in the eighth. Granderson stole second against the toughest pitchers to run on when a hit-and-run play went awry.

"The fact that Cliff Lee's so fast to the plate, as soon as [Placido] Polanco misses [on the swing], I'm like, 'Oh man,'" Granderson said at the time. "I saw Asdrubal [Cabrera] jump to his feet. He put a perfect tag right on the top of my foot, but I got in by a cleat."

Polanco’s groundout moved to Granderson to third, where Tigers threats had ended all evening. This one seemed over, too, when Thomas hit a ground ball to second, but Thomas’ speed down the line and Luis Valbuena’s double-clutch on the throw gave Thomas the split-second he needed to hit the bag as Valbuena’s throw arrived.

That was all the support Verlander needed. He hadn’t thrown a shutout since his no-hitter against Milwaukee two years earlier, but manager Leyland decided this was his game.

To finish this one off after a Valbuena walk in the ninth, however, he needed Granderson. Sizemore connected with a 99 mph fastball and sent a drive deep to center and sent Granderson dashing toward the center-field fence to time his jump. As Granderson’s back hit the padding, he reached his glove over the fence, bringing back the ball.

An incredulous Verlander threw his arms up in celebration when he realized Granderson had the ball. It remains one of the greatest catches in recent Tigers memory. It helped decide a game that deserves to be up there as well.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.