Justin Verlander came within two outs of his third no-hitter, allowing only Josh Harrison’s ninth-inning single in the Detroit Tigers’ 6-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday night.
The 29-year-old Verlander, last year’s AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, nearly became the sixth major league pitcher with at least three career no-hitters. But with one out in the ninth, Harrison reached out and flicked a clean single into shallow center field.
The crowd at Comerica Park, already on its feet, gave Verlander a big ovation and the right-hander quickly finished off the Pirates with a pair of groundouts. Verlander completed his one-hit gem with 12 strikeouts and two walks.
"It was just amazing," Verlander said. "These fans have been unbelievable in supporting me, this team, this city. It’s been really special to be a part of this for seven years now. They show support for me when it’s good, when it’s bad, and it means a lot."
Mixing a pinpoint fastball with his sweeping breaking ball, Verlander methodically set down the Pirates for seven innings — then really brought the crowd to life in the eighth. Casey McGehee struck out looking on a 98-mph fastball, then Nate McLouth went down swinging on a pitch that hit 99.
Verlander reached 100 mph with his first pitch to Clint Barmes, and after getting him to chase an outside pitch for strike three, the Detroit ace walked slowly to the dugout and down the steps closest to home plate on the third-base side — while teammates used another entrance at the opposite end.
"His stuff is so good, any time he gets to the fifth or sixth inning with a no-hitter, it’s in the back of your mind," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "When he gets to the middle of the game, you think it can happen."
The crowd came to its feet between the eighth and ninth and Verlander quickly returned to the mound, having thrown only 95 pitches. Michael McKenry grounded to shortstop Jhonny Peralta on a 3-2 offering, and Verlander got ahead of Harrison before he reached for a 1-2 breaking ball and sent a soft line drive up the middle that Peralta couldn’t get to.
"It was a slider. It stayed up a little bit. Shattered his bat. Give credit for fouling off a tough couple pitches," Avila said.
Verlander (5-1) saw the ball drop in shallow center and bent backward on the mound, knowing how close he came to another taste of history. Instead, he settled for his sixth career shutout and 16th complete game.
Four of the five pitchers with at least three no-hitters are in the Hall of Fame: Nolan Ryan (seven), Sandy Koufax (four), Bob Feller (three) and Cy Young (three). Larry Corcoran, an ambidextrous pitcher who won 177 games from 1880-85, is the other one.
Verlander no-hit Toronto on May 7, 2011. His other no-hitter came June 12, 2007, against Milwaukee.
This was his first one-hitter, although he allowed one hit in eight innings against the Los Angeles Angels last season, one of several close calls to go with the no-hitter against the Blue Jays.
"You can’t worry about what’s going to happen if the guy puts the ball in play. You’ve got to trust your defense behind you," Verlander said. "I trust those guys behind me and it allows me to throw strikes."
After rolling to the AL Central title in 2011 and adding Prince Fielder in the offseason, Detroit was just 18-20 entering Friday night’s game. Manager Jim Leyland said beforehand the Tigers had to expect some criticism — but it was nothing a few wins couldn’t solve.
Against the Pirates, Leyland’s team gave the sellout crowd at Comerica Park a much-welcome glimpse of what Motown was hoping to see this season. Miguel Cabrera and Fielder hit back-to-back RBI doubles in the first inning off Charlie Morton (2-4). Delmon Young added a solo homer in the fourth, and Don Kelly’s run-scoring single later that inning made it 4-0.
Then there was Verlander. He was holding opponents to a .186 average even before Friday’s game. The Pirates — who entered the night hitting .221 — were simply overmatched.
The buzz began to build in the fourth. Neil Walker hit a hard line drive, but right at Brennan Boesch in right field. Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez then struck out.
In the sixth, McKenry made decent contact but hit a grounder right at Peralta. Then Harrison sent a drive toward left-center field. Kelly — playing center because of an injury to Austin Jackson — was able to make a running catch and keep the no-hit bid going.
It was Verlander’s 51st straight regular-season start of at least six innings.
The sun didn’t set until around 9 p.m. on this mid-May night in Michigan, and with Verlander breezing through the Pittsburgh lineup, the sky didn’t really begin to darken until the seventh.
Walker struck out looking to begin that inning — then had a few words for plate umpire CB Bucknor. McCutchen walked for Pittsburgh’s first baserunner since the first inning, but Alvarez grounded to first and Garrett Jones was caught looking at a breaking ball.
"The last few innings he definitely was (going) for it," Avila said. "He threw great today. His stuff was great across the board."
NOTES: Bucknor was shaken up in the first when he was hit around the collarbone by a wild pitch. … Boesch extended his hitting streak to 11 games. … Detroit’s Drew Smyly (1-0) takes the mound against Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett (1-2) on Saturday.