Tigers fall in extras, but approach strikeout record
The magic number remains two for the Detroit Tigers to clinch the Central Division.
The bullpen let a 3-0 lead and a victory for Justin Verlander get away on Monday night in a 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins. Josmil Pinto singled in the winning run off Luke Putkonen in the 11th inning, and Joaquin Benoit blew his first save opportunity in 23 attempts by serving up a ninth-inning solo homer to Brian Dozier.
However, Tigers pitchers moved in position to make some strikeout history during the lost cause.
Detroit registered 16 strikeouts, with Verlander getting 12 in six innings and Al Alburquerque getting two clutch strikeouts with two on and nobody out in the seventh inning.
That gives the Tigers 1,369 strikeouts, and leaves them 15 K’s away from setting the American League record established last year by the Tampa Bay Rays via Cy Young Award winner David Price and James Shields. Detroit also has a legitimate shot at the major league record of 1,404 strikeouts by the 2003 Chicago Cubs of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
The Tigers must average 7.0 strikeouts over the last five games to equal the Cubs’ record, and have averaged 8.7 strikeouts per game. Detroit had been on a pace to smash this record earlier this season, but then the whiffs stopped coming at such high frequencies.
However, Rick Porcello greatly exceeded his average strikeout totals by getting 19 over his last two starts. And relievers such as Alburquerque are adding their share of K’s.
Chasing the records, though, comes down to having three starters ranked in the American League’s top six in strikeouts.
Max Scherzer leads the staff with 230 and Verlander now has 207. Anibal Sanchez, with one start remaining, has 194.
Neither of the teams Detroit is chasing for the strikeout records had a trio of 200-strikeout pitchers, but Sanchez can achieve that rare feat by fanning six on Saturday in Miami against his former team, the Marlins.
And while wins are what matter this time of year, and Verlander was denied his 14th victory of the season, the Tigers had to come away from this game feeling good about Verlander’s showing.
Verlander (13-12, 3.56 ERA) had a 4.31 ERA over his last six starts, and wasn’t dominating hitters. But he struck out the side in the second and third innings, and fanned everyone in Minnesota’s starting lineup.
The curveball – which has long been Verlander’s signature pitch – hasn’t buckled knees in many games this season. But it did in this one.
“I think he got it going pretty good as the game went on,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Verlander told FOX Sports Detroit’s John Keating: “I think I had the best breaking ball I had all year.”
Tigers catcher Alex Avila maintained that the “stuff” has been there all season for Verlander.
“It’s a matter of locating,” Avila said. “…That’s been at the forefront of his troubles this year.”
And that is what Avila said Verlander did best in this game. He painted the corners of the plate and didn’t leave balls over the middle of the plate.
It marked the sixth time this season that Verlander allowed zero runs in a start. However, none of those outings lasted longer than seven innings, and Verlander, who is scheduled to start the regular season finale on Sunday, could finish his first season without a single complete game.
He has 20 in his career and led the league with six last year.
Had he gone the distance in this one, the outcome might have been different. But Leyland elected to remove him after 107 pitches rather than let him approach the 120 pitches he often reaches.
Verlander surpassed 200 strikeouts for the fifth consecutive year, and only Mickey Lolich with six straight years (1969-74) has exceeded that for the Tigers. It was Verlander’s 27th game with 10-plus strikeouts, and Lolich is the only one ahead with 54.
Verlander was one off his season-high of 13 strikeouts and two away from his career-high of 14. But what he did have was a look that suggests he’s ready for the playoffs.
“He looked good,” said Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter. “He had the attitude. That’s the Justin Verlander I’ve been looking for…It’s a swag – a certain swag he has.”
And he had swag as surely as a curve that broke abruptly.
So, assuming Detroit does clinch the Central, Leyland faces some interesting post-season rotation decisions. Scherzer leads the league in wins and Sanchez shares the league lead in earned run average. And Verlander is Verlander, having either won or finished second in voting for the Cy Young in 2011 and 2012.
It will be widely debated, but is a good problem for a manager to have.