DETROIT — Yes, Tigers fans, that was really Justin Verlander on the mound Saturday night.
He may have looked like Jamie Moyer or late-career Frank Tanana, but it was the Tigers ace trying to survive a game without his legendary fastball. It didn’t go well.
Verlander did strike out seven batters in his five innings — mostly with his changeup and curveball — but the lack of a working fastball meant that he gave up six hits, five walks and four runs.
“That happens to me about once or twice a season,” a frustrated Verlander said. “My bullpen before the game was the best I’ve had this season, but it didn’t carry over to the game.”
He started the game like the heater was the only thing he had — getting up to 95 mph as he threw fastballs on 13 of his first 15 pitches. The problem was that he couldn’t get them over the plate. By the time he started mixing in some off-speed pitches, Nick Swisher had hit an RBI double and, for just the the third time in his career, Verlander had walked a batter with the bases loaded.
“I was yanking every fastball I threw,” he said. “If I tried to hit the outside corner to a righty, it was going way outside, and if I tried to go inside to a lefty, I was pulling it right over the middle of the plate and they always seemed to hit it for a double. I’ve got to fix it in my next bullpen session.”
For the next four innings, Verlander pitched more like the Eddie Harris character from Major League than his usual Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Cleveland got a steady diet of changeups, curveballs and sliders. He still wasn’t great, but he kept the Tigers in the game. Cleveland made it 3-0 in the second on Asdrubal Cabrera’s RBI double on, of course, a fastball, but Jhonny Peralta’s homer got Detroit back within two.
“He was just all over the place, especially with the fastball,” Jim Leyland said. “He got his breaking stuff going pretty good, but the 62 pitches in the first two innings just wore him out.”
Leyland, though, wasn’t worried about his ace.
“I think everyone has gotten spoiled by that guy — he’s so good that when he has a bad night, everyone wants to sound the alarm,” Leyland said. “There’s no alarm. These things happen to everyone, even the best of them, and tonight it happened to the best of them.”
Verlander shut the Indians down in the third and fourth innings, throwing nothing harder than a 90-mph changeup, but he went back to the fastball in the fifth with more bad results. Facing Mark Reynolds, who had already struck out twice, Verlander threw a 95-mph heater on 2-2, and Reynolds lined it into centerfield for an RBI single.
“Usually when my pitch count gets up early, I can spot my fastball on the corners and get some quick outs,” he said. “I couldn’t do that today, so every out was a battle. Every time I tried to go back to the fastball, it got hit.”
As it turned out, Detroit’s late rally made every run important. The Tigers narrowed the gap to 7-6 in the ninth, and had Miguel Cabrera up with two on and two out. Chris Perez ran the count to 3-2 before getting Cabrera to ground out to end the game.
“I’ll take that situation every time,” Leyland said. “We fought tooth and nail from 6-1 down and we got the exact guy in the exact spot we wanted. You just can’t expect him to do it every time.”