"The last couple of starts, I've just been a bit inconsistent," Verlander said after his second loss in as many starts, last Tuesday in Boston. "I've got to work to get it back. I have some work to do."
Verlander got it back, all right. As a result, the Tigers (59-50) moved nine games over .500 for the first time all season.
When Verlander reared back for a 100-mph fastball on his 130th pitch as Ichiro Suzuki stood in the batter's box, trying to avoid a third strikeout on the night, Verlander had it, and he put it where he wanted. Ichiro fouled it back, but it was a brief reprieve, because when Verlander wanted his curveball two pitches later, he had that, too.
"That last curveball that he threw him, I don't know too many guys that are hitting that," catcher Alex Avila said. "I had a hard time trying to catch it."
When Ichiro swung meekly and missed it, Verlander had his 14th strikeout of the night to tie his career high, set last June against Arizona. It came on his 132nd pitch of the night, also tying his career high. It also broke this season's American League high of 13, set by Verlander on April 16 in Kansas City.
No Tigers pitcher had struck out 14 Yankees in a game since Jim Bunning did it on June 20, 1958. The only other Detroit pitcher since 1918 to do it was another Hall of Famer, Hal Newhouser, on May 27, 1943.
Verlander did it against a Yankees team that ranked eighth in the AL in strikeouts entering the night. Unlike the other two, he did it with a designated hitter in the opposing lineup.
"I thought I had a decent amount," Verlander said, "but I didn't really know until the eighth inning. I kind of looked back and saw 11 or 12. I think after I struck out one guy, I saw 12 or something."
Verlander didn't know how many strikeouts he had, but he knew why he got as many as he had. The work he put in between starts got him there.
"Today felt night-and-day different from my last couple of starts," Verlander said. "Me and Jeff Jones, our pitching coach, looked at some video and changed some things, and thankfully I was able to make the adjustments quickly. I really felt much more in sync from the get-go today.
"Those adjustments are what allowed me to pitch the way I wanted to, whereas the last couple games, I kept falling behind guys and wasn't really hitting my spots."
Never mind that it's the two-thirds mark of the season and Verlander's innings are piling up. What makes him so dominant isn't just the physical endurance to throw so many pitches consistently and still be at his strongest near the end of a start, nor is it the perfectionist streak that allows him to work on his game tirelessly with precision. It's the ability to do both at the same time during stretches like this.
"To go from having a rough outing like he had in Boston to this doesn't surprise me at all," Avila said. "I don't think it should surprise anybody. He's just that kind of a competitor. He works that hard at what he does and strives to be as good as he can be. He can be like he was today every single time. Stuff like that doesn't surprise our team like that anymore."
It wasn't a mechanical overhaul, just fine-tuning a couple of things, Verlander said. It was also a more deliberate tempo from a pitcher who has hurried up too much with his delivery a few times this year. He wasn't happy with his fastball, first and foremost, coming out of his rain-shortened five-inning start at Boston and his runaway seventh inning five nights earlier in Cleveland. He took the loss in both.
"Two starts in a row, one inning hurt me, and I wasn't able to make my pitches I wanted," Verlander said. "I just felt like I was letting the team down and needed to pitch better. I think every start if I don't win, I'm a little bit upset with myself. But two in a row with big innings, teams stringing together hits, that's not like me. I knew there needed to be something changed."
Out of 132 pitches, Verlander threw 96 for strikes, the third-highest total for a Major League pitcher in the last 10 years. Brandon Morrow threw 97 out of 137 pitches for strikes in his 17-strikeout one-hitter against the Rays on Aug. 8, 2010. Randy Johnson threw 102 strikes out of 149 pitches on July 31, 2002. Neither had as good of a ball-strike ratio as Verlander, who was throwing strikes on 75 percent of his pitches at one point on Monday. He settled for 72.7 percent.
Verlander struck out Mark Teixeira looking at three straight curveballs after back-to-back RBI singles tied the game, the fifth inning having been extended by Verlander's errant drop at first base. He struck out the last three batters he faced after a leadoff walk in the eighth.
Verlander struck out so many batters that he overshadowed an estimated 454-foot drive by Miguel Cabrera into the center-field shrubs for the game's second run.
"A lot of times, great pitchers get a little nastier when they have guys on base," said Derek Jeter, one of just two Yankees Verlander didn't strike out. "They seem to bear down a little bit. He did that today. There's a reason why he's one of the best in the game."