DETROIT -- The battle of young and old strikeout pitchers at Comerica Park went to the old guard on Friday night. Justin Verlander outpitched Noah Syndergaard with six innings of two-run ball and nine strikeouts, earning the Tigers their ninth win in 10 games with a 4-3 victory over the Mets.
The win, coupled with an Indians loss to the Yankees, cut Detroit's deficit to two games behind Cleveland in the American League Central.
Verlander (12-6) won his fifth consecutive decision since the beginning of July and his third in as many starts. He did so by pitching to the Mets in reverse at times, mixing sliders and curveballs to set up a mid-90s fastball. Once he had his combination working, he struck out six in a seven-batter span into the fourth, then retired seven of his final eight hitters following Kelly Johnson's two-run homer.
"Whether it's him versus Syndergaard or him versus Chris Sale, his concentration goes up to another notch," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said of Verlander. "He wants to beat that guy. Even though they don't actually face each other in the American League, he wants to beat that guy or walk off the field with the lead."
Syndergaard (9-6) matched him early, retiring eight in a row after Ian Kinsler singled and scored in the first inning. Three consecutive hits leading off the fourth, including Victor Martinez's two-run homer and J.D. Martinez's double, proved costly for Syndergaard. He struck out seven batters over six innings, but he yielded four runs on seven hits.
The Mets have not won consecutive games since July 6-7, almost a full month ago.
"It seems like there's a night where we pitch well and we don't hit, then another night we score six and we win the game," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "Then the next night, we don't hit again. It's certainly hard to understand why we're going like that."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Kinsler creates offense: The Tigers haven't needed to manufacture many runs lately the way they've been hitting, but Kinsler ran his way into the game's first run after a leadoff single in the first. He not only stole second base off Syndergaard and catcher Rene Rivera, but he took such a big lead from there that he was able to steal third without a throw. That put him in position to score on Miguel Cabrera's slow groundout to third.
"You obviously do your research on guys, so you have a little bit of wherewithal on what their moves are," Kinsler said. "You definitely want to see it live, but if you see something on video, you can take advantage of it."
Short-lived lead: In part because of Wilmer Flores' struggles against right-handed pitchers, but largely because of Johnson's home run on Thursday at Yankee Stadium, Mets manager Terry Collins started the veteran over Flores for Friday's series opener. Johnson made the decision an impactful one, launching his two-run homer off Verlander with two outs in the fourth. While Collins stopped short of calling the situation a platoon, Johnson should continue to play against right-handers for as long as he is swinging a hot bat.
V-Mart delivers: Syndergaard had just taken the mound with a lead for the first time when Cabrera led off the fourth with a single. After missing with a first-pitch fastball to Martinez, Syndergaard tried a change of speeds low in the zone and missed. Martinez did not, sending an estimated 417-foot drive from home plate, per Statcast™, into the right-field seats for his 19th home run on the season.
"I went out there for the fourth inning just thinking in my head, 'Don't give up the lead, don't give up the lead,'" Syndergaard said. "It's like trying to tell someone not to think about a pink elephant. It just doesn't work out like that. I dropped the ball on that one mentally. It can't happen."
Opportunity lost: Aside from Johnson's homer, the Mets' best chance to score off Verlander came when they rapped out consecutive singles to open the second inning. But Johnson and Brandon Nimmo struck out in succession, and Rivera flied out to end the threat.
"When you face a guy like Justin Verlander and you've got a chance to get him, you'd better get him," Collins said. "Because if you don't, they settle in, and they get you out."
"I hope people are excited about the team. We're playing really good baseball, having a lot of fun. We want everyone to join us. There's plenty of room on the bandwagon." -- Kinsler, on the Tigers' winning ways
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In going 7-2 with a 1.91 ERA over his first 14 starts, Syndergaard averaged 14.9 pitches per inning, striking out nearly nine times as many batters as he walked. In eight starts since that time, he has averaged 17.4 pitches per inning, while his K/BB ratio has fallen close to league-average levels. His record and ERA over that stretch are 2-4 and 4.06, respectively.
WHAT'S NEXT Mets: New York turns to its fifth starter, Logan Verrett (3-6, 4.20 ERA), who could use a strong outing at 7:10 p.m. ET on Saturday at Comerica Park. Verrett will pitch on the same day as Zack Wheeler, who is scheduled to begin his long-awaited Minor League rehab assignment for Class A Advanced St. Lucie. When Wheeler is ready to return from Tommy John surgery, Verrett's rotation spot will be in jeopardy.
Tigers:Matt Boyd (2-2, 4.71 ERA) will try to continue his month-long stretch of stingy pitching when he starts the middle game of the series. Boyd went 2-0 with a 2.21 ERA over four starts in July, walking four and striking out 23.