The question on everyone’s minds for most of the season has been: What’s wrong with Justin Verlander?
It wasn’t so much Verlander’s 11-8 record and 3.88 ERA that had people worried, it was the inconsistency in the command of his pitches, particularly his fastball, and the diminished velocity.
Add in the fact that Verlander had only managed to go eight innings one time this season and you can understand why people wondered if Verlander would ever regain his Cy Young/MVP form again.
Verlander’s 5-1 victory Tuesday night in Cleveland, a place where he’s had a losing record (8-10, 5.54 ERA), might calm some of those concerns.
Verlander looked like his vintage self, allowing the Indians just one run on four hits while striking out seven in eight innings, helping the Tigers to their 10th straight win.
Perhaps just as important, Verlander did not walk a batter.
“I thought Verlander was terrific,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland told FOX Sports Detroit’s John Keating on the post-game show. “That’s the Justin Verlander we know. Hopefully we see a lot more of that because he was absolutely outstanding.
“I was actually going to take him out in the eighth but he said let me see if I can give you a 1-2-3 inning. OK, go ahead, go for it. He did. He was terrific.”
The radar gun showed Verlander reaching 100 miles per hour after he had thrown more than 85 pitches.
“You saw he was pitching at 96-97, 98-99, that was the major difference,” Leyland said. “Really good curveballs, he went after them real good tonight. You can’t go after them much better than that. I thought he was absolutely terrific.”
Verlander, who had been working diligently with pitching coach Jeff Jones on his mechanics, discovered something in his last bullpen when he didn’t feel quite right.
“Went in there and looked at some tape again, found that I was too closed off with my front leg,” Verlander told Keating. “Looked back at some old video and found that I wasn’t closed off. I was kind of tying myself up, it was hard for me to locate down and away to a righty and into a lefty.
“It was hard for me to get on top of stuff, because naturally when you’re closed off you kind of fall off to the side. I think that was leading to a lot of problems. Obviously, this being my first start since making that adjustment, pretty good results.”
Verlander allowed the one run on former teammate Ryan Raburn’s RBI groundout in the second inning, right after his teammates had failed to score with the bases loaded and nobody out.
The rest of the Tigers made up for their second inning with a five-run fifth off of the Indians’ top starter, Justin Masterson, capped by Don Kelly’s three-run home run.
Kelly came into the game batting .381 (8-for-21, 1 double, 1 home run, five RBIs) against Masterson.
“He’s obviously a great pitcher, lot of movement, he throws his sinker, he throws 96 miles an hour,” Kelly told Keating on the field after the game. “I can’t even explain it. I just see him well.”
That was all Verlander needed.
“Obviously that was disconcerting, you go out there and we didn’t score with bases loaded, nobody out, and I go out there and give up one run,” Verlander said. “That’s a big momentum swing.
“So obviously I’m sitting there telling myself, that’s it. I can’t give up another run. We’ve got to find a way to get the momentum back in our favor. We scratched and clawed across a couple and then Donnie came up with a huge two-out homer to stretch the lead to four.”
Catcher Alex Avila has caught a Verlander no-hitter and some of his other special games, so he recognizes when Verlander is on.
“After the first couple innings, like in the third inning, I told Jones, he’s got it today,” Avila told Keating. “He had that look in his eye. He was determined to do whatever it took to win that game. It was fun to catch.
“Today was probably one of his best games he’s thrown all year, I think. He’s been working on his stuff mechanically over the last few weeks. I think he’s kind of finally found some momentum as far as his mechanics and he was able to repeat it a lot today and he was a bulldog today. That’s why he’s our number one.”
For most of the season, Verlander hadn’t looked like the No. 1 guy, especially with the rest of the rotation excelling.
Max Scherzer is 16-1 with a 2.85 ERA, Anibal Sanchez is 9-7 with a 2.58 ERA and Doug Fister is 10-5 with a 3.52 ERA.
On Tuesday, Verlander appeared ready to reclaim his role as staff ace.