Justin Verlander clearly isn’t the pitcher he was three years ago when he was winning the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.
Still, the Detroit Tigers would much rather have him healthy and a part of their rotation as they try to chase down first place in the Central.
Verlander will be back on the mound after missing one start Saturday in the second game of a day-night doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field (Game 1 12:30 p.m. pregame, 1:10 first pitch; Game 2 6 p.m. pregame, 7:10 first pitch on FOX Sports Detroit).
Considered by many to be the best pitcher in baseball after going 78-31 with a 2.95 ERA and 17 complete games from 2009-2012, Verlander hasn’t been nearly that effective since. He was 13-12 last season and is 10-11 with 4.76 ERA in 25 starts in 2014.
A case can easily be made that Verlander has been passed on his own staff by last season’s AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, newcomer David Price, who won that award in 2012 and even Rick Porcello, who is 14-8 with a 3.10 ERA this season.
Verlander had shown signs of returning to form recently, posting a 2.86 ERA during a three-start stretch before allowing five runs in one inning Aug. 11 at Pittsburgh. He was removed with shoulder soreness, an injury that prevented him from taking his most recent turn in the rotation.
After throwing 35 pitches off the bullpen mound Thursday, Verlander felt good enough afterward to confirm his expectation of starting Saturday night.
"It was pretty much everything I wanted today," Verlander told MLB’s official website. "No issues. Everything felt good."
The Twins (57-70) figure to be a good opponent for Verlander to face in his return. He’s 8-1 with a 1.83 ERA in his last 11 starts against them, including 4-0 with a 1.41 ERA in five at Target Field. The right-hander hasn’t allowed an earned run in his past three starts there while striking out 27 over 18 innings.
Detroit (68-58) will need to get some innings from Verlander and Game 1 starter Buck Farmer after Robbie Ray recorded only four outs before departing in Friday’s series-opening 20-6 loss. The Tigers dropped a season-high 2 1/2 games behind first-place Kansas City and trail Seattle by one-half game for the final wild-card spot.
Eduardo Escobar had a home run among his career-high five hits, Danny Santana also went deep with four RBIs and Trevor Plouffe and Oswaldo Arcia homered off Tigers infielder Andrew Romine in the eighth inning.
"Every team goes through a few of these games," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "It always stings a little more when you’re fighting in the pennant race at the end of August."
The 20 runs were the most in the majors this season and most in the five-year history of Target Field.
The Twins lead the majors in runs this month with 113 in 20 games. They scored 99 times in 26 games in July.
Farmer will be tasked with slowing that offense in his second major league start.
The right-hander allowed four runs over five innings in his debut against Pittsburgh on Aug. 13, avoiding a loss when the Tigers rallied for an 8-4 victory.
Farmer was a fifth-round pick in 2013 and spent most of this season at Class A West Michigan.
Yohan Pino (1-5, 5.37) will be recalled as the Twins’ 26th man on the roster to oppose Farmer. He struggled in his most recent major league start, yielding seven runs – including three homers – and seven hits over 4 1-3 innings in a 10-4 loss at Houston on Aug. 12.
That was another poor road performance for Pino, who is 1-3 with a 7.40 ERA in five starts away from Target Field compared to 0-2 with a 3.77 ERA in five at home.
The right-hander allowed two runs over seven-plus innings Monday against Syracuse in his last appearance for Triple-A Rochester.
Minnesota will send Trevor May (0-2, 9.00) to the hill in the second game.
The right-hander has had control issues in each of his first two major league starts, walking 11 over 6 2-3 innings while allowing seven runs and 10 hits. Four of those walks came in 4 2-3 innings of a 6-4 loss to Kansas City on Monday.