Verlander leans on defense, which obliges

Verlander leans on defense, which obliges

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander called his fastball "horrible." His manager, Jim Leyland, said the Pirates seemed to be sitting on his fastball.

  • 134 wins
  • 118 wins

In some outings this year, that would be the setup for a long night at the ballpark and another night of Tigers struggles. Friday's 6-2 win over the Pirates, by contrast, was a curveball off of that, a quick, active night in which Verlander started using his offspeed and breaking ball to get hitters to put the ball in play and let the defense do a lot of the work.

Two full years had passed since Verlander had walked more batters than he struck out, which he did Friday with four free passes and three strikeouts. His nine flyouts against six groundouts continued his recent pattern of getting the ball into the air. Austin Jackson's sprinting catch in right-center field continued his pattern of running those balls down, and Carlos Guillen's double-play turn was a sign that there's still some stinginess in the infield defense.

It left Pirates manager John Russell wondering what more his hitters could've possibly done, other than hit the ball out of the park.

"We hit the ball pretty hard," Russell said. "Their defense made some real nice plays against us. Contact-wise, we hit the ball fairly well. We've just got to see if we can get some to start dropping in with guys on base."

They tried. Struggling Akinori Iwamura's fourth-inning drive took Don Kelly to the left-field fence before he corralled it, stranding two runners and setting up Verlander to face the bottom of Pittsburgh's order in the fifth inning. Kelly, starting in left field with Magglio Ordonez out for a fourth straight game, leaned into the seats to get the third out of the third inning on Neil Walker, his brother-in-law. Walker returned the favor with a sliding catch to retire Kelly later, but Kelly's catch halted a Pittsburgh rally after Andrew McCutchen had doubled in Iwamura.

"There are a lot of ways you can impact a game," Kelly said. "Tonight, I was able to help the team out on defense. I made a good catch at the fence and one in the stands. It's great to get back in the win column, especially at home."

None of those could compare with what Jackson still had in store. Detroit's rookie center fielder has found a knack for running, over-the-shoulder catches, having made at least a handful of them this season. He's blurring the line on balls his teammates expect to get caught versus what they think is going to fall.

"I don't ever think [he can't catch a ball] anymore," third baseman Brandon Inge said. "The ball better be 20 feet over the fence before I think [that]. And even then, he might find a way to go get it. I don't know."

Said catcher Alex Avila: "He's making me into a believer, every time I see a ball that's hit that normally a center fielder doesn't get to."

Most center fielders don't track down the drive Ronny Cedeno hit to right-center field unless they're playing deep to that side. Jackson was playing Cedeno to straightaway center and somewhat shallow. Once he saw the ball off the bat, he took off.

"He's been making those all year," Leyland said. "I thought he had no chance on that one."

Jackson made a true read on the ball almost immediately and ran at full speed toward where he thought the ball would fall. Once it finally came down, he was still running all out, and fast enough to get his glove under it just shy of the warning track in right-center field.

"When it was first hit, I was like, 'No way,' " Avila said. "But those last few feet, he has another gear. He has such long strides out there and reads the ball so well. It was an unbelievable catch, it really was."

Said Inge: "His speed is incredible. It's a different speed than I've ever seen. It's so smooth, it doesn't even appear that he's running fast until you can gauge the ball and him running at the same time. It's amazing to watch."

By then, Verlander had a comfortable lead thanks to the bottom half of the Tigers' order, which produced five two-out hits off Pirates starter Ross Ohlendorf (0-4). Avila singled in runs in the fourth and sixth to go with Brennan Boesch's solo homer and Ramon Santiago's two-run shot.

Still, with Lastings Milledge on first base and one out, Cedeno's drive would've surely driven in a run had it fallen. It also would've put another runner in scoring position with one out and ensure that the dangerous McCutchen would have a chance to drive him in and turn it into a full-blown rally.

Instead, Verlander (7-4) struck out Jason Jaramillo to finish the threat. He left after giving up a McCutchen double and Walker walk in the eighth, but he pulled out a quality start on a night when his stuff was probably less than that.

"He has good enough stuff to where, when he makes mistakes, he can get by," Avila said. "That's what a No. 1 is supposed to do. Even on his bad days, he pitches well."

That's what a defense is supposed to do behind him, especially on days like this.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.