DETROIT — Justin Verlander stepped up Monday night.
Not just for the Tigers, but for a city of sports fans reeling from the worst weekend in recent memory.
After Denard Robinson’s interceptions, Dominic Raiola’s snap and a doubleheader sweep by the lowly Twins, Verlander went to the mound and did what he does best — he got his team and his city a win, beating the Kansas City Royals, 6-2.
Even more important, he did it on a night when Adam Dunn’s two homers helped the White Sox come from behind to beat Cleveland 5-4. Chicago still leads the Tigers by a game with nine to play.
Verlander wasn’t at his overpowering best — he allowed two runs on nine hits in his eight innings of work — but he was steady in the Tigers’ victory. He struck out eight and didn’t walk a batter, even if that wasn’t good enough for a noted perfectionist.
“I wouldn’t say that I was overly happy,” he said. “I threw strikes, but some of the hits I gave up were off strikes that weren’t quality strikes. There’s a difference.”
Still, while he didn’t throw 114 perfect pitches, Verlander’s control was at its highest level. He threw 78.1 percent of his pitches for strikes — the second-highest percentage that any starter has posted in the last six seasons. Cliff Lee hit 78.2 percent in a 2010 start for the Mariners.
“He just threw strike after strike after strike,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “There’s not a lot you can do when he’s pitching like that.”
For one crazy moment, though, it looked like Verlander was going to end his season on one of the most ridiculous plays in baseball history. After a routine pitch, Alex Avila threw the ball back to Verlander — something he does more than a hundred times a night, game after game.
This time, though, he hit home-plate umpire Bill Welke’s hand in mid-delivery, sending the ball bouncing along the ground to the third-base side of the mound. With a runner on third and not realizing that Welke had called time, Verlander dove to grab the ball and came up holding his shoulder.
Luckily, though, it was his left shoulder — the one that he doesn’t use to throw 100 miles an hour.
“With a guy on third and the ball on the ground, I knew I had to stop it, and all my weight landed on my left arm,” he said. “It should be fine, but maybe I could throw with it just dangling there. Who knows?”
After being examined by trainer Kevin Rand, Verlander stayed in the game.
“It was obviously pretty scary, but I wasn’t too frightened, because he didn’t have a real expression of pain on his face,” Jim Leyland said. “I was a little nervous. Luckily, he’s fine.”
Verlander is now 16-8 with a 2.72 ERA and a strong contender to win his second straight Cy Young Award.
“He’s amazing,” said Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer. “Most pitchers have a plan of how to get you out, but he throws so many great pitches that he has a different plan every time he faces you. That’s tough.”
However, with just one start left, Verlander is going to have to leave Detroit’s fate in the hands of his teammates. He’s comfortable with that.
“Like I’ve said before, we play good baseball when our backs are against the wall,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us, and this team rises to the pressure.”
It was hard to see that at times on Monday, as Detroit struggled to make routine plays in the field and on the basepaths. Three Tigers were thrown out on the bases, including a bizarre play where Kansas city leftfielder Alex Gordon fielded an errant throw by rightfielder Jeff Francoeur and gunned down Austin Jackson at third.
“We try to entertain everybody,” Leyland said wryly.
The Tigers have nine days to decide how they will be remembered — entertaining failures or division champs — and Leyland knows they can’t expect any help.
“I went to church yesterday, but that didn’t help,” he said. “I even gave a pretty good donation in the collection box — thought it might be enough for a couple wins — but the big guy doesn’t work that way.”