Verlander steps up for Tigers

Justin Verlander walked down the steps and headed straight to the other end of the dugout, still wearing his game face. He put down his glove, turned back around and walked purposefully toward the Tigers’ clubhouse, not stopping, not saying a word.

The seventh inning was over. Verlander’s pitch count was at 123. Jim Leyland, the Tigers’ manager, had said before the game that he did not want to push Verlander — the team’s ace now and through at least 2014 — beyond 125.

But Verlander, after an efficient, 10-pitch seventh, was in no mood for conversation. The Tigers, trailing three games to one, had a seemingly comfortable 6-2 lead in Game 5 of the ALCS. But Verlander knew that the Tigers’ pitching staff, in the words of Leyland, was down to, “Verlander and Verlander and Verlander . . . and maybe (Phil) Coke.”

“I didn’t even talk to, ‘Skip,’ I didn’t even look at him,” Verlander told me in the postgame interview on FOX after the Tigers’ 7-5 victory was complete. “I didn’t want to give him an opportunity to take me out of the game. If I had my way, I would have stayed out there all night.”

He tried. He couldn’t. But the “MVP!” chants at Comerica Park never seemed more fitting than they did on Thursday, even if the award only is based on regular-season performance.

Verlander was less than his best in Game 5. He has been less than his best almost the entire postseason, as evidenced by his 5.31 ERA in four starts, two of which were rain-interrupted.

But here is what matters: Verlander pitched into the eighth inning Thursday after Leyland publicly announced before the game that his two best relievers, closer Jose Valverde and setup man Joaquin Benoit, were unavailable.

The Tigers needed everything Verlander had.

Verlander gave them even more than Leyland envisioned.

His day ended with a 100-mph fastball, ended when the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz — who else? — hit a two-run homer on the right-hander’s career-high 133rd pitch. The game got hairier, as seemingly every game in this series must, with the Rangers bringing the winning run to the plate against Coke in the ninth. But in the end, Leyland finally could breathe.

The manager has been as protective of his pitchers as a mother hen in this series, refusing to work Verlander on three day’s rest, refusing to use Benoit and Valverde a fourth straight day, refusing to forsake his convictions in an attempt to salvage the Tigers’ season.

Which isn’t to say any of his decisions are easy.

Verlander this season has thrown a major-league high 4,301 pitches; Chris Carpenter is next at 3,876. Leyland made no secret of his trepidation with Verlander in his pregame meeting with the FOX broadcasters for Thursday, saying, “If he has stressful innings early, I’ll be a wreck.

“The only thing that worries me about this game is his pitch count,” Leyland said. “If he has stressful innings early, a high pitch count, it will put me in a bad spot. I can’t let this get ridiculous.”

Leyland had a number of pitches in mind for Verlander: 125. But, he allowed with a smile, “If he’s at 125 with the bases loaded, he might throw 127 or ’28.”

After throwing 33 pitches in the fifth, Verlander was at 96.

“The fifth-inning was a disaster for us from the pitch-count standpoint,” Leyland said. “I was concerned. I wanted 125. That was going to be the limit. We talked in the dugout, (pitching coach) Jeff Jones and I, we were going to 135 pitches. That was it.”

The fifth was almost Verlander’s undoing. With one out, he issued a walk to Ian Kinsler, then allowed back-to-back singles by Elvis Andrus and Josh Hamilton, the second hit tying the score, 2-2. Then, with two outs, Adrian Beltre nearly hit a three-run homer down the right-field line.

It sliced just foul.

Verlander said he found his rhythm in the sixth and seventh, but even in the sixth he got into a bases-loaded, one-out jam, only to escape when Kinsler hit into a double play on the first pitch, breaking his bat on a fastball down and in.

“We had him right there,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “He got out of it.”

By that point, Verlander was at 112 pitches. Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson had allowed only solo homers by Alex Avila and Delmon Young. The Tigers appeared just about ready to expire. Then, as if on cue, they erupted for four runs.

Nine outs to go. No Benoit. No Valverde.

“You can’t let yourself think about that when you’re out there,” Verlander said. “But I knew that was the case. Therefore, I knew that he would let me ride out there for 130, 140, maybe.”

Verlander’s easy seventh made it possible for him to start the eighth. But he gave up a one-out single to Mike Napoli, then went 0-2 on Cruz. Earlier in the game he recalled making Cruz, “look pretty foolish on a couple of curveballs.” This time, he thought Cruz might be sitting on a curve, so he fired the 100-mph heater.

Cruz crushed it, and so admired his accomplishment, he formed the numbers, “1-0-0,” with his hands after he returned to the dugout.

After 133 pitches, Verlander was finished — and smirking on the mound.

“I out-thunk myself,” Verlander said. “I tried to sneak one by him and he got out of it. Then it’s in the air, and it’s, ‘Please go foul. Please go foul. I’m such an idiot, please go foul.’ That’s why you get the little smirk.”

He had made his point. He had saved his bullpen. He had saved his team.

In the postgame interview, I asked Verlander if he could pitch in relief in Game 7, a prospect that his pitching coach, Jones, later dismissed as “probably 99 percent no.”

I had barely had finished the question when Verlander gave his emphatic response:

“Yes!”

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