DETROIT — Justin Verlander might have finally figured out April.
If the Tigers ace has ever shown a weakness, it has been the first month of the season. He came into 2013 with a 11-15 record in April, including a 4.37 ERA. It’s the only month where he hasn’t had at least a .600 winning percentage, and it is also his worst ERA.
This year, though, Verlander hasn’t waited until May to start looking like a Cy Young candidate. The Tigers’ 6-1 victory over the Twins gives him a 3-2 record for the month, but he could easily have four or five wins with a little more run support. His ERA of 1.83 and 41-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio give a better picture of how well he is pitching.
“I’m pretty sure this is my last April start, right?” Verlander joked, knowing that May was only 90 minutes away. “Hopefully, this will be the end of the April issues, because I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone this time.”
As well as Verlander had pitched in his first five starts, there were still concerns. He hasn’t come close to hitting triple figures on the radar gun, and pessimistic fans were worried that something was wrong with his arm. Tuesday, he topped out at 97 — right where he expects to be.
“In 2008, my velocity was down a little early in the season, and I tried to compensate for it by throwing the ball harder and harder,” he said. “I learned my lesson that year. I know now that my power comes from my mechanics, so I know how to build things up and how to pitch my fastball instead of just throwing it.
“I’m still throwing 96 and 97 and striking guys out. I’ll get to 100, but this will work in the meantime.”
Verlander acknowledged that he didn’t have his best stuff against the Twins, but he’s proud of his ability to use what he has instead of trying to find something extra.
“That’s something that has come with experience,” he said. “I know what I’m doing, and I’m able to hit spots and make smart pitches even if everything isn’t perfect. That’s why I’m not having another bad April.”
After blowing through the first inning with just eight pitches — all strikes — Verlander had a tough time in the second. He needed 30 pitches, and gave up an RBI double to former Tiger Wilkin Ramirez.
“That was a discouraging inning for him,” Jim Leyland said. “They got his pitch count up, and that cost him later in the game.”
The inning was just as frustrating for Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.
“We had a lot of opportunities there, and we battled him on every one of them,” he said. “He didn’t have his A-game out there, but he made pitches when he really needed them. That’s what great pitchers do — when they absolutely need a pitch, they find something nasty.”
Verlander only allowed three hits in his last five innings, and the only runner to reach scoring position needed help from a passed ball.
“We fought him with everything we had — we always put up a good fight against him — but that’s why he has all those awards,” Gardenhire said.
With eight strikeouts, Verlander helped the Tigers tie an American League record with a fifth-straight 10-strikeout game. Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit got the last two that Detroit needed to become the eighth AL team to accomplish the feat — the Red Sox have also done it this season.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all — just look at this pitching staff,” Verlander said. “Sanchez just struck out 17 guys, Fister struck out nine in a row last year, Scherzer strikes out more guys per inning than anyone and I’ve won a few strikeout titles. (Al) Alburquerque comes out of the pen and strikes out everyone that gets into the box, and the rest of the guys in the pen can strike guys out. That’s what we do.”
The Tigers are three games away from Milwaukee’s major-league record, set last season, but they have a realistic chance. Sanchez pitches Wednesday afternoon against Minnesota, followed by four games against the hapless Astros.