Verlander's gritty effort helps Tigers gain ground

Verlander's gritty effort helps Tigers gain ground

Verlander's gritty effort helps Tigers gain ground
DETROIT -- The pitch count Wednesday night looked like the 2010 version of Justin Verlander, but it's actually more modern than you think.

The back-to-back bunts that started Detroit's opening rally looked like something from the punchless Tigers offense of a decade ago. The Miguel Cabrera home run to cap the scoring looked like a continuation of a September to remember.

The resulting 6-2 Tigers win over the A's at Comerica Park, accompanied by a White Sox loss in Kansas City, looked like the American League Central isn't anywhere near over.

Even back to two games behind Chicago in the division race, though, the Tigers aren't focusing on the White Sox. They're focused on their own cause, winning games.

"If you win games and get into the playoffs, I think it'll take care of everything," said Cabrera, now one home run shy of the lead in all three offensive Triple Crown categories.

The Tigers won their second in a row over a team that had been one of the hottest teams in the league, but they did it with the kind of performances they haven't seen in a while.

They did it with 122 pitches from Verlander over just six innings because of 34 pitches A's hitters fouled off. They accounted for nearly a third of his first 100 pitches, a mark he reached with just one out in the fifth.

It looked like a reprisal of Verlander's younger days, when his penchant for max-effort pitches from the start ran up his pitch count in a hurry. Those outings usually ended with a few early-inning runs, a few quick middle innings and a little frustration afterwards that he couldn't pitch deeper into the game.

This was different. While A's hitters never let up on making him work, he never let go of his composure.

None of the 122 pitches Verlander threw resulted in a run.

"I think over the years, he's learned not to get totally frustrated with a game like this, where they're fouling pitches off," manager Jim Leyland said. "He said something to me during the delay, when they were taking [A's starter Brett Anderson] out. I said, 'Geez, do these guys make any easy outs?'

"That can get on your nerves a little bit, when you're making pretty good pitches and they're fouling them off."

Verlander wasn't altogether happy about it, but he credited the A's for making him work.

"The way they were swinging it, they weren't going to do a lot of damage," Verlander said. "They were just looking to put the ball in play somewhere or foul it off. So keep throwing strikes, try to execute and not get frustrated. And I was able to do that."

It might be a reminder of his youth, but the frequency of it this year is surprising. Four times this year, Verlander has had to use 120 pitches or more in outings of six innings or less. He had just two such outings in each of the previous two seasons, and none in 2009.

Wednesday was the first of the four this year that he has won.

"We had quality at-bats to get there, we just didn't get a big hit when we needed to, and that's what it takes," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "It's one thing to get his pitch count up and another to get hits with runners in scoring position, and we didn't do that."

The Tigers actually had the same 2-for-10 performance with runners in scoring position as Oakland. The A's had their two after Verlander left and the game was in hand. Detroit's two accounted for three early runs while Verlander was still on the mound.

Just as the A's had a game plan against Verlander, so did the Tigers against lefty Brett Anderson. The two advance scouts they sent to watch the A's this month, Leyland said, told them about Anderson's tendency to fall off the mound to the right side. Get the ball down the first-base line, the logic went, and there's a chance to get on.

"We got a pretty good report," Leyland said. "We took advantage of it."

Andy Dirks was the first to do so, dragging a bunt toward first base and beating the play to the bag leading off the third inning with the kind of speed he has struggled to find this season while dealing with leg injuries.

Two pitches later, Gerald Laird -- starting in place of injured Alex Avila -- did the same.

"I just figured if I could put it in the same spot Dirks did, I could beat the guy to the bag," Laird said. "I just know if I can get it in the right spot, I've got some gas in the tank still in the legs and I can beat it out."

Omar Infante plated them both with a double down the left-field line before Anderson left with a strained right oblique. Pat Neshek escaped a bases-loaded jam with a sacrifice fly, but Jhonny Peralta's fifth-inning run stretched it further.

The game was pretty comfortably in the Tigers' command by the time Cabrera lofted a Jim Miller pitch into the left-field seats in the seventh inning for his third home run in two nights. The M-V-P chants from crowd showed the timing didn't matter.

It was a fastball chin-high, and he skied it far higher than his usual home runs. It counted just as much.

"It was very high," Cabrera said. "I wasn't sure. I was saying, 'Please go out.'"

It was Cabrera's lone hit on the night, but his 1-for-3 effort maintained his AL-best .333 average to go with his 130th RBI. With 41 home runs, he's just one behind Josh Hamilton.

"You're talking about a guy that's one home run away from a Triple Crown, and that's a rarity in baseball," Verlander said. "I think that's a testament to how good of a player he is, his natural ability."

Jason Beck is a reporter for 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.