Orioles hand Verlander, Tigers first loss of the season

Justin Verlander (0-1) gave up two runs on five hits and two walks over eight innings.

Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT — Even in losing, Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander did something Sunday to put his career and what he can accomplish in perspective.

He definitely pitched well enough to win the game in which Baltimore Orioles ace Chris Tillman frustrated the Detroit Tigers and came out on top, 3-1. But what Verlander did achieve in the game was joining the three most accomplished long-term pitchers in team history atop the career strikeout list.

Verlander now trails only Mickey Lolich (2,679), Jack Morris (1,980) and Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser (1,770) where whiffs are concerned. Verlander passed Tommy Bridges for fourth place by striking out Steve Lombardozzi in the fifth inning, and has fanned 1,676 batters.

Verlander said he was unaware of that until it was announced and the 34,261 at Comerica Park gave him a nice round of applause.

"That was pretty cool," said Verlander. "It’s not like we’re an expansion team. It’s pretty special to have my name listed up there with those names, and to be getting pretty high up the ladder on some of these things."

Verlander is ninth with 137 wins, and 85 behind franchise leader Hooks Dauss, who pitched from 1912-26 as a teammate of Ty Cobb’s.

Verlander is signed through 2019 with a vesting option for 2020 if he finishes in the top five in Cy Young Award voting the year before. With either six or seven full seasons ahead of him, it’s easy to do the math and see that Verlander should end up with more wins and strikeouts than anybody who has ever pitched for Detroit.

He’s on a clear path to join Al Kaline and Charlie Gehringer as the only players in Cooperstown who played their entire careers for the Tigers. Granted, Verlander is only about halfway there.  But barring injury, there’s nothing else that should stop him.

Verlander said there isn’t even a twinge of doubt left about his health after having successful core muscle repair surgery Jan. 9. He appears ready to rack up 200 innings for the eighth straight season and 200 strikeouts for the sixth consecutive year.

The odd thing about Verlander achieving the strikeout milestone was that he struck out only three in eight innings, while allowing two runs on five hits. Add in the two strikeouts that he had in six innings on Opening Day, and that’s five strikeouts over 14 innings.

Normally, that would be cause for all kinds of theories about Verlander losing his grip on greatness. The only problem with that is his 2.57 ERA, his fastball already regularly hitting 95 mph, and the fact that Tigers catcher Bryan Holaday said his curveball was outstanding.

Going by his career average of just under one strikeout per inning, Verlander should have 13 strikeouts. His current total of five is well off that. So, I asked him if it was a simple anomaly in light of the good stuff he’s had out of the gate.

"My feel for those (strikeouts) isn’t there yet," Verlander said. "That’s very typical for me at this point. But you’ll find a feel for it."

Verlander had 17 strikeouts after two games in 2011, when he won the Cy Young and MVP. His 3.86 ERA was considerably higher that year than what he has now after two starts.

Holaday said there was another factor to consider in the strikeout drop-off.

"A lot of that has to do with trying to get hitters out early in the count right now," said Holaday.

Verlander came out after 105 and 112 pitches in his first two starts, and is trying to conserve pitches to last longer. He’s ramping up to his usual 120-plus range, and striking out hitters requires going deeper in counts and throwing more pitches.  

So, for now, Verlander is pitching a bit more to contact. He threw only six pitches in the sixth inning and five in the seventh. That’s about how many pitches are required to strike out one batter.

And while Verlander loves the strikeouts, he’s even bigger on winning games.

As much as the strikeout lead would mean, going one up on Dauss for wins will mean even more.

Climbing these ladders is special.