Verlander loses, but star continues to rise

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Justin Verlander did nothing to add to his legend Friday night. Oh, he was striking out Tampa Bay Rays like nobody’s business. But he couldn’t match David Price in stringing zeroes along the scoreboard, and a three-start winning streak ended.

Verlander is now 8-5 despite a 2.69 ERA. He struck out eight in six innings, and regained the league lead in that department ahead of Tigers teammate Max Scherzer with 121. Verlander’s 123 2/3 innings are the most in the majors.

And, at the age of 29, he is climbing among the giants in the franchise’s pitching pantheon.

Verlander is 115-62 since coming up for two starts at the end of the 2005 season. He is two wins away from matching Denny McLain, who was 117-62 in Detroit before his arm and life fell apart.

The fact that McLain’s winning percentage (.654) is just an eyelash ahead of Verlander’s .650 says much about how dominating he’s been.

McLain, in 1968, was the last Tigers starter to pull off the MVP-Cy Young combo Verlander achieved last season. McLain also shared Cy in 1969 with Mike Cuellar of the Baltimore Orioles.

The difference between McLain, who was 26 when departing Detroit, and Verlander is that Verlander’s future appears likely to be as productive as his past.

He has not been as blow -‘em-away devastating as McLain was in going 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA in the final season before mounds were lowered to aid hitters. But Verlander looks like he will be one of the game’s premier pitchers much longer than McLain was.

“He’s one of the most talked-about players in baseball,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “That tells you something.

“He’s got all his ducks in order.”

Verlander is a conditioning freak, and he never sniffs trouble off the field. He is a student of the game who approaches each start as if he needs this one to avoid being sent down. Nothing is taken for granted.

And that is what separates the good from the great, and the great from the awesome.

Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, named the club’s bullpen coach before Verlander’s second season and elevated to his current position last year, has seen him develop.

Jones said Verlander at times has not been “as sharp” as last season, but marvels at how he continues learning and improving on adjustments to hitters during at-bats. The things Verlander watched Kenny Rogers do as a young pitcher, when Verlander lovingly called him “The Gambler,” is what he’s now doing.

“He has four-plus pitches,” Jones said. “They are each above average consistently. And if one isn’t working, he’s still got three.”

Jones said that matter of factly, and I mentioned how mind-boggling that statement is. Jones chuckled and nodded. Having two-plus pitches makes you an All-Star, having three makes you one of the premier hurlers. Having four … well, that makes you borderline illegal.

His curve remains his calling card.

“It’s a phenomenal pitch,” Jones said. “It is one of the best, if not the best, I have ever seen. Pedro Martinez’s and Justin’s are the best curves I have ever seen.”

Jones, 55, has spent 35 years in professional baseball. He pitched parts of five seasons in the early 1980s for Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s, and spent much of each of the last four decades in the majors in some capacity.

“Justin throws about 60 percent fastballs,” Jones said. “He’s getting it up to 91-93 right away and turns it up to 98-99-100 when he’s in jams.”

The changeup, which Jones calls a “real feel pitch,” is the toughest for him to have clicking. But when Verlander has it, it makes his fastball seem a tick faster. And it gets batters out in front of the ball like they’re blindfolded and going for a pinata.

The slider, which Verlander began working on in part to tame tormentor Jim Thome, has been a difference-maker at times.

“It has become a real good pitch for him,” Jones said. “When he threw the no-hitter last year at Toronto, his curve was not as sharp as usual. His slider was real good.

“That game taught him the importance of making your pitches.”

Leyland said the night of that no-hitter, Verlander was ready to become all he could be, and the skipper absolutely nailed that one. He rode Verlander, whom he calls the “Horse,” pretty hard up until that point. Leyland wanted him to learn to pitch, and in that game it became clear Verlander had.

But there are nights like Friday, when he gave up three solo homers and lost, 4-2, to Price and the Rays.

“Justin’s control was not very good,” Leyland said. “That’s what bit him tonight.”

Verlander walked just one, but it was where he threw strikes. Both of Desmond Jennings’ homers caught far too much of the plate.

“There is an old saying that solo homers don’t hurt you,” Verlander said. “It doesn’t apply to three of them.”

He was encouraged by regaining the superb movement to his changeup, but that was about it. It was a game to learn from, and he already was talking about his next start.

Verlander will get one more start before the July 10 All-Star Game in Kansas City, which he could very well start. He is sure to be named to the honor squad for the fifth time when teams are announced Sunday.

McLain went to just three All-Star Games, and left the Tigers in a trade that set them up for the 1972 division title. Joe Coleman, Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez came to Detroit from the Washington Senators for a pitcher who had just 14 wins left in him.

McLain came up to the Tigers at 19 and was gone seven years later.

He was a shooting star, rising fast and falling hard.

Verlander’s star is ascending.

When folks wonder how many no-hitters you will end up with (he has two) and what your final Cy Young tally will be, you are only getting better.