VerHagen, Knebel provide glimpse of future in Tigers loss

Drew VerHagen pitched four shutout innings after striking out four of the first six batters he faced.

Tim Fuller

DETROIT — The Detroit Tigers didn’t get a victory in the matinee of Saturday’s day-night doubleheader. The Cleveland Indians were 6-2 winners behind the 10-strikeout performance of Corey Kluber, who won his 10th game of the season.

But what the Tigers and 38,109 fans at Comerica Park did get was a glimpse of two just-recalled pitchers who could be part of the future.

Reliever Corey Knebel, who came up from Toledo while rookie reliever Chad Smith went down after Friday night’s game, pitched in relief and was more relaxed than in his major league debut two months ago.

And 6-foot-6 starter Drew VerHagen, making his major league debut, pitched four shutout innings after striking out four of the first six batters he faced. He allowed three runs before completing his fifth and final inning to take the loss, but made a good first impression.

"It was a solid effort for a first start in the majors," said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. "He kept us in the game and gave us a shot to win. His big pitch was his curveball. It has such a big break on it, and was taken a lot by the Indians."

However, Cleveland’s professional hitters got more aggressive with VerHagen the third time through the order. VerHagen also started falling behind the batters, and the result in the fifth inning was RBI hits by Nick Swisher, David Murphy and a revived Jason Kipnis — who has six RBI in two games after getting 24 in 68 previous games.

"The fifth was definitely rocky," said VerHagen, who allowed five hits and three walks while throwing 82 pitches. "It was getting behind guys mostly."

However, he was smiling about most of the outing and having more than two dozen family and friends in attendance.

"It was a blast," VerHagen said. "It was really fun. I threw solid, not great."

His third pitch after the fastball and curve is a hybrid changeup-splitter he learned from Toledo pitching coach Al Nipper, who pitched five of his seven major league seasons with the Boston Red Sox in the mid-1980s.

"(Nipper) had that pitch when he threw," said VerHagen, "and he taught me that pitch this year. It’s more of a change than a split."

Two of his strikeouts, against Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, came on swinging third strikes against the changeup with a touch of split-finger fastball.

VerHagen, who had a 2.43 ERA in his last five starts after getting off to a rocky start this year, isn’t a strikeout pitcher by nature. He fanned 63 in 110 1/3 innings for Toledo, and will return to the Mud Hens after making a spot start because of the doubleheader.

"I wanted to locate down in the zone because I’m a ground ball pitcher," said VerHagen, who got ex-Tiger Ryan Raburn to hit into a double play that kept the fifth inning from getting out of hand.

Detroit drafted VerHagen in the fourth round out of Vanderbilt in 2012. The Tigers also made Commodores pitcher Will Clinard a 19th-round selection two years ago, and have now drafted four Vandy pitchers in the last three years. Starter Kevin Ziomek was a second-rounder in 2013, and closer Adam Ravanelle was a fourth-round pick last month before helping the school to its first College World Series title.

He kept us in the game and gave us a shot to win.

Brad Ausmus on Drew VerHagen

David Price, Sonny Gray and Mike Minor all were taken in the first round over the last eight years, and have established Vanderbilt as a go-to school for top talent.

VerHagen said former Commodores pitching coach Derek Johnson, now the Chicago Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator, started the tradition.

"The foundation was built by Derek Johnson," VerHagen, 23, said, "and (current pitching coach) Scott Brown has continued it. They helped me with arm strength, developing a routine and also the mental side of the game."

Ausmus said VerHagen showed poise, and noted that Knebel, a possible closer of the future, looked more composed. He allowed one earned run on three hits and struck out three in 1 2/3 innings.

"He has a good arm and great off-speed stuff," Ausmus said of Knebel. "His curveball was sharp and his fastball explosive. I’m glad to have him back. He’s definitely more comfortable."

Knebel, the 39th overall pick last year out of the University of Texas, throws his fastball in the mid-90s.

"I’m definitely more confident this time," said Knebel, 22, who had a 6.75 ERA in six previous appearances with Detroit. "I’ve learned and know what to expect."

VerHagen, Knebel and lefty reliever Blaine Hardy (2.51 ERA in 14 games) have pitched together in Toledo this season. They are getting a taste of what the future might hold, and so are the Tigers.

"It’s exciting for all of us and affects all of us," Knebel said. "Now (VerHagen’s) living the dream."