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Leyland shows faith in Verlander in Tigers' big win

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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DETROIT

What was once a five-run lead became four, then three, then two, then one. Jason Kubel had just smacked Justin Verlander's 125th pitch into the gap for a run-scoring double, and pretty much everyone at Comerica Park figured the Tigers' 26-year-old ace was through.
Two out. Eighth inning. Tying run at second. Closer Fernando Rodney was warming up. And here came Jim Leyland from the dugout. It was time for Verlander to go. Fans scrambled to put down their plastic cups so they could stand up and offer their guy a rightful salute. No, wait. Leyland arrived at the mound, uttered maybe a dozen words and pivoted back toward the dugout. It took a moment or two before the reaction fully registered among the crowd of 30,240. DUDE, DID YOU SEE THAT? LEYLAND LEFT HIM IN! At the most crucial juncture of the American League Central race, audacity carried the day. Leyland scored one for the old-timers when he left a strong-yet-tiring pitcher on the mound in his team's biggest game of the season, and he was rewarded handsomely for the show of faith. Four pitches later, the inning was over. The dangerous Michael Cuddyer, a consistent hero for Minnesota, tapped out to third base. Verlander walked off the mound with the lead and a bold 129-pitch effort. After losing a 10-inning epic to open a memorable day-night doubleheader, the Tigers needed to make a statement in the nightcap. And Leyland apparently concluded that timidity wasn't going to cut it. Following their manager's lead, the Tigers restored their two-game lead with a pulsating 6-5 victory. "Opening Day, ninth inning, one-run lead, my heart's pumping no different than it is right now — pretty fast," Leyland said afterward. "I'll have a Marlboro to slow it down." But before we go any further, let's revisit that exchange on the mound. The moment had that much gravity. The words spoken there will surely live on in Detroit sports lore, the stuff of barroom retellings and T-shirt catchphrases.
Most Pitches Thrown in '09
Roy Halladay
Edwin Jackson
Gil Meche
John Lackey
Ian Snell
Pedro Martinez
Adam Wainwright
Justin Verlander
6/2 vs. LAA
5/21 vs. Tex
6/16 vs. Ari
8/9 vs. Tex
4/29 vs. Mil
9/13 vs. NYM
9/26 vs. Col
9/29 vs. Min
133
132
132
131
131
130
130
129
That would be the case — if only Leyland and Verlander could actually agree on what was said. Leyland's version: "I basically told him, 'I don't have anybody better than you.' That's the line I usually use. With him, I mean it. Once in a while, you're not quite so sure. But with him, I mean it." Verlander's version: "When he came out of the dugout, I was (looking) back and forth between him and the bullpen. ... He just came out. It was quick. He said, 'Hey, this is your guy. Go get 'em.'" But what about Leyland telling Verlander that he didn't have anyone better? "He said that awhile ago — I think he said that in Chicago," Verlander said, smiling. "One of his go-to lines." OK. Maybe it isn't essential to get our hands on the transcript. The more important thing was the impact Leyland's decision — and Verlander's performance — had on the AL's Last Race Going. If Cuddyer had pulverized Pitch No. 129 into the left field seats, the Twins and Tigers might be tied atop the division as you read this. Or if Cuddyer had doubled home Kubel on a too-straight Rodney fastball, they still might be playing Game 2. Instead, Detroit took command of the division race once more. Even after the Twins' thrilling victory in Tuesday's opener, the Tigers are assured of no worse than a tie for first place entering their weekend series against the White Sox. A lot changed over nine short innings. "We answered," catcher Gerald Laird said. That's what an ace will do for you. When a team is in possession of the best starting pitcher on either staff — as the Tigers clearly do — nights like this are supposed to happen. Verlander, maturing by the day, made certain that he delivered when his teammates needed him most. And yes, he heard the crowd's enthusiastic/disbelieving standing O when Leyland kept the baseball right where it was. "That meant a whole lot," said Verlander, who tied a career high with 18 wins. "This series, this year, means a lot to this city. It all came together right there. They knew the situation — very knowledgeable fans, great fans here. They got me fired up, that's for sure." "He's our horse," Leyland said. "He had to be out there." When the first game began, at 12:06 p.m., the Tigers' horse wasn't even out of bed. The team permitted him to arrive on his normal schedule for a night start — as is customary during a doubleheader — so Verlander spent the afternoon anxiously flipping the channels and trying to avoid the ballgame. He couldn't bear to watch. Too nervous. "I felt like a fan," he said. The civilian afternoon behind him, Verlander made clear early that he intended to (a) win and (b) stay on the mound for a very long time. The Tigers needed quality and quantity from Verlander, with setup men Zach Miner and Brandon Lyon having pitched in the opener and the availability of left-hander Bobby Seay still in question. Verlander struck out the side in the second inning and came within one pitch of doing the same in the fifth. His breaking balls almost made the Twins lurch into back handsprings. "He was making guys buckle," Laird said.
Most Times Throwing 120+ Pitches
Justin Verlander
Tim Lincecum
CC Sabathia
Cliff Lee
Adam Wainwright
Matt Garza
10
5
4
4
4
4
Verlander has thrown 120 or more pitches in 10 starts this season. That leads the majors, according to STATS LLC. And it isn't even close. Tim Lincecum is second — with five. The radar speed on Verlander's next-to-last pitch was 98 miles per hour. "The pitch-count thing pertains to some people," Leyland said. "Other people, it probably doesn't." On Verlander, Leyland added, "He can extend to 130, really, if you want to know the truth." After Tuesday's doubleheader, the Twins and Tigers left fans in both cities — and hopefully across the country — waiting anxiously to see what happens next. This was baseball theater at its best. Even the scoring was identical for both sides: eight runs apiece. Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire gambled big in Game 1 with a ninth-inning squeeze — and eventually won, even though his daring strategy turned into a double play. In the nightcap, with one there-and-back walk, Leyland took a big chance of his own. "October baseball in September," Leyland said later. We hear all the time that power pitching wins in October. Verlander proved again why that's true. And one way or the other, his next start will fall during baseball's most hallowed month. Tuesday's high pitch count likely rules out any chance that he will pitch Saturday on short rest. So, his next outing will probably come Sunday against Chicago — if that game matters — or in the middle of next week at Yankee Stadium. And after what Verlander did Tuesday night, the Tigers might see the Bronx after all. "We're in the driver's seat a little bit," the ace said. "The Twins are playing catch-up — not the other way around. We're where we want to be."
Tagged: White Sox, Tigers, Twins, Giants, Brandon Lyon, Michael Cuddyer, Gerald Laird, Jason Kubel, Fernando Rodney, Justin Verlander, Zach Miner, Tim Lincecum

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