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Verlander asserts self as Central's Alpha

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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

And now for Justin Verlander’s latest trick: He broke up his own perfect game.

No, I’m not talking about Orlando Cabrera’s clean single with one out in the eighth, the first hit Verlander allowed in Tuesday’s 4-0 humbling of the Cleveland Indians. On this night, the Detroit Tigers ace took 27-up, 27-down stuff to the mound and then gifted the Indians a baserunner on what appeared to be a purpose pitch in the first inning.

So, you can forget what the box score tells you: No Indians batter earned his way on base against Verlander until Michael Brantley’s seventh-inning walk. Yes, we were within range of an asterisk-perfect game by a Tigers right-hander, against an Indians lineup, for the second consecutive June.

Instead, we were left with something almost as intriguing — Verlander’s nonverbal proclamation that he is absolutely, positively, the Alpha Male in this year’s AL Central race.

On a day when the Detroit Free Press’ A1 headline screamed, “FIRST-PLACE SHOWDOWN!,” Verlander pushed his team into sole possession of the division lead for the first time all year. And he did it with attitude.

OK, here are the facts:

• On April 29, Carlos Santana crushed a no-doubt, walk-off grand slam off Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit. Santana’s reaction to the shot was not out of the ordinary, according to modern baseball norms. But he did pause initially to admire the blast. And he did high-step his final approach to home plate.

• The Tigers and Indians played two games in Cleveland after Santana’s walk-off. The Indians won both. In the series finale, there were two hit batsmen on each side — including Detroit superstar Miguel Cabrera.

• Verlander had yet to pitch in 2011 against the Indians — a team that hit him hard in prior years. His record against Cleveland entering this season was just 10-11, with a 5.11 ERA.

• Verlander, by his own acknowledgement, had his best stuff of the season on Tuesday. (Yes, even better than his May 7 no-hitter against Toronto.) On top of that, he had pinpoint command. He rarely missed a spot with his fastball, curveball or changeup. Basically, he could’ve located a baseball between the “k” and “B” in “BlackBerry.”

• Santana came up as the second batter of the game Tuesday, after Verlander froze Grady Sizemore with a perfectly placed curveball. The first pitch was a 98 mph fastball. It whizzed by Santana’s ribs and smacked the backstop. The second pitch was — you guessed it — inside and 98. Santana spun out of the way, but it clipped him on the elbow. After an odd moment of indecision, he took his base.

• Verlander went on to throw a precise, 117-pitch, two-hit shutout.

When asked about the Santana at-bat, Verlander smiled and offered the standard: “I missed my spot.”

“Twice?” I asked him.

“Yep,” he replied.

Santana, for his part, said he was “very surprised” that Verlander hit him. Asked if he thought it was an accident, he replied, “I think so — maybe yeah, maybe no.”

Another Cleveland player suspected it was retaliation for Santana’s walk-off stylings in April — in which case, the player said, the teams are “even” now.

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But perhaps a little spite between the teams will persist. When Cabrera wired his single to center — on what Verlander said was a poorly located fastball — he carried his bat halfway up the first-base line before flipping it toward the dugout.

Verlander said he didn’t see it. When a reporter mentioned it to him, Verlander replied, “I might go look at it now. Whatever. If he wants to flick his bat when it’s 4-0 in the eighth inning, if that’s the type of player he is, that’s fine. You can’t worry about guys like that.”

The series of events is open to interpretation. Here is mine: Verlander took it upon himself to settle a six-week-old score. And he did it without losing focus, as might have happened in the past. It was a statement moment in a statement game in a statement series. Whether you agree or disagree with baseball’s in-game justice, Verlander conducted himself like a composed veteran — something he hasn’t always been, despite his career’s Hall of Fame track.

Verlander is 28. This is his sixth full season. He’s been around long enough to sense why this series means so much. The Indians were a heartwarming story for the season’s first two months. But now they’re mired in a 5-15 skid. Their seven-game lead is gone. Their lineup, short on veterans, needed a confidence boost. But Verlander bullied them from 60 feet, 6 inches, thanks to some combination of four-seamer and bravado.

Given the first-half showings by Josh Beckett, Jered Weaver and Alexi Ogando, Verlander can’t yet be considered a favorite to start the All-Star Game — even if he does lead the league in innings, to go along with a 2.66 ERA. But there isn’t a more intimidating pitcher in the game today. Certainly, the Indians have no one like him. Frankly, no one in the AL Central does.

Who else can say (with a justifiably straight face) that he begins every start with the expectation that he won’t give up a hit, as Verlander did on Tuesday? Asked when he starts thinking about a possible no-hitter, he said, “Usually, about the third or fourth.” Usually? Having thrown two no-hitters, experience tells Verlander that he usually gets that feeling about the third or fourth.

Self-assured? Of course. But he backs it up. I respect that.

“After the first inning, I always think I’m going to,” he said, when asked if he sensed that he would get no-hitter No. 3 on Tuesday. “I never plan on giving up a hit. . . . That’s the expectation I hold myself to. I believe, as a starting pitcher, you have to have that mentality: You go out there, and you don’t expect to give up a hit.”

He probably doesn’t plan on allowing a baserunner of any kind.

I mean, not unless he means to.

Tagged: Indians, Tigers, Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Carlos Santana

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