Tigers keep position after Verlander exacts revenge

Tigers keep position after Verlander exacts revenge

Tigers keep position after Verlander exacts revenge
CLEVELAND -- So much for the usual Chicago-to-Cleveland letdown the Tigers have suffered whenever they've gone from beating the first-place White Sox to facing the fading Indians.

So much, too, for the notion that Justin Verlander has to win games single-handedly these days. Six weeks after the Indians spoiled a Verlander gem at Progressive Field with a four-run seventh, he got through seven shutout innings with help from two rally-killing defensive stops from his corner infielders, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.

Yet Verlander said that Friday's 4-0 win wasn't about exacting revenge -- either his own or that of the team.

He couldn't care less about July at this point. He's more worried about the next few weeks, with Detroit needing to make up a one-game deficit in the American League Central. The Tigers did their part. The White Sox, fittingly, shut out the Twins in return.

Two more matchups await before the Tigers and White Sox have their makeup game on Monday in Chicago. Verlander doesn't want to look that far.

"The rest of the season is going to be pressure baseball," Verlander said. "It seems to me like we play well that way."

He came to that opinion when the Tigers swept the White Sox in Detroit over Labor Day weekend, and he saw it reinforced when they won back-to-back games in Chicago. Their struggles against the Tribe in between don't exactly fit the picture.

"I agree 100 percent," Verlander said. "But what I'm hoping is, coming down this stretch run, we know that every game's a must-win. Maybe that will kick-start us a little bit into knowing that every game is a pressure game. Every pitch, every at-bat is a big at-bat, big pitch. I think this team thrives off of that."

From his first pitch on Friday, his performance seemed to reflect the urgency. The 97-mph fastballs he threw in the opening inning, well off his usual effort to pace himself, were the first sign.

That was more conscious adjustment than adrenaline, a suggestion from pitching coach Jeff Jones after the Royals and Angels roughed up Verlander early in two of his last three starts.

"We talked to him about that," manager Jim Leyland said. "Jonesy [said], 'You might want to come out at 93-94, 94-95, and don't worry about the pitches. We'll take care of that.'"

Verlander's velocity came and went from there, according to the situation. He hit 97 again in the third inning, 98 in the fourth, then carried it farther into the fifth. When Casey Kotchman's single and Lonnie Chisenhall's double gave Cleveland runners at second and third with nobody out, Verlander hit 99 mph to reach strike two on Ezequiel Carrera, setting up a nasty offspeed pitch to fan Carrera for the second out.

If the velocity didn't show the importance, the chest bump Verlander nearly gave Fielder after the next pitch did.

"I battled my [tail] off," Verlander said. "Second and third, nobody out and I get the first two, and then [Jason Donald] hits a jam job, a soft-hit ball that would be a heartbreaker if that falls in there or gets down the line.

"Right off the bat, it's like, 'Oh God.' And then I see it go over the bag and see [the umpire] call fair, and then Prince comes out of nowhere and snags it."

Fielder's dive wiped out part of the foul line behind first base. From there he flipped to Verlander as the hurler raced to cover the bag.

"I thought it was one of those that would skip over the bag into foul territory and go for a double," Leyland said. "He made a heck of a play."

After Shin-Soo Choo's leadoff single the next inning, followed by Carlos Santana's one-out double, Verlander had to do it again. Cabrera repeated the gem, stretching out down the third-base line on Kotchman's grounder and firing across the infield to Fielder, who dug the ball out of the dirt.

The tandem that was put together to win games with their bats might have won this one with their gloves.

"I thought Prince might have made a game-saving play and I thought Miggy might have made a game-saving play," Leyland said. "Two guys on the corners made huge plays."

Verlander stayed on the mound and waited to fist-bump Cabrera, whose defense at third has been debated ad nauseum.

"It means a lot," Cabrera said. "You're not going to win every day with hitting home runs. You win a lot of games with defense. When you're able to do that, your pitchers are going to feel better. They're going to feel more confident."

Verlander seems to have confidence building, not simply in his defense but the team overall. The Tigers struggled to add runs after a pair of two-run innings off Corey Kluber, who struggled to re-create the stingy pitching that beat the Tigers a week and a half ago, but they did enough.

"It's kind of hard to say things are coming together at the end of the season," Verlander said. "We are what we are, but I think we're an extremely good team that's just been a little bit inconsistent. Hopefully, we'll find some consistency down the stretch, and I think we've shown over the last few series, especially against the White Sox, that this is a team that plays well under pressure. That's why we're a real threat in the playoffs, and hopefully, we can get there."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.