In Tigers' pursuit, Verlander controls what he can

In Tigers' pursuit, Verlander controls what he can

In Tigers' pursuit, Verlander controls what he can
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander can spot a 99-mph fastball on the corner to strike out a hitter, come back with curveballs to get ahead of the next batter, then send down that hitter swinging at a 100-mph fastball.

About all he couldn't do for the Tigers in the American League Central race Monday was retire Adam Dunn, if only because he wasn't facing him.

No sooner had Jose Valverde finished off Verlander's third straight victory with a 6-2 win over the Royals than manager Jim Leyland turned his attention to the Indians' lead over the White Sox while he talked with reporters in his office. He saw Dunn's first home run.

"Oh boy, that's a bomb," Leyland said.

The clubhouse had cleared out by the time Dunn homered again with a go-ahead three-run shot in the eighth, sending the White Sox on their way to victory and keeping the Tigers a game back in the American League Central with nine games to go.

Verlander can't control that. In fact, with his next start Saturday in Minnesota likely the last of the regular-season barring a one-game division playoff, he can't control much on Detroit's side the rest of the way either.

He's in line to pitch the Tigers' postseason opener in a week and a half. Now it's a matter of finding a way to get there.

"It's not like every game's a must-win," Verlander said, "but it's getting close to that point. It's a lot of pressure on us, but I think this team thrives under pressure. And if we start winning a few of these ballgames that switches everything and puts the pressure on the White Sox."

Part of thriving, Andy Dirks said, is focusing on what they can do, not the other side of it.

"It would be good," Dirks said of a White Sox loss, "but we can't worry about what the other team's doing. You've just got to take care of your own business, and then however it plays out in the end is how it's going to play out."

The only other game Verlander seemed to be thinking about going into his start was the last meeting he had with the Royals. Kansas City jumped on his early pitches that August night at Kauffman Stadium for seven runs in the first two innings and eight runs on 12 hits over 5 2/3 innings.

He thought about that and changed his approach to some hitters this time around, he said. And clearly, he wasn't afraid to go to his power pitches early.

His first three pitches of the night were fastballs to Jarrod Dyson at 94, 95 and 97 mph, putting to rest the old plan of starting out slow and building up. He put four hitters in 0-2 counts the first time through the batting order, and he kept the Royals from getting anything in the air without authority until Alex Gordon homered leading off the fourth.

"Maybe [the playoff race] fueled him a little bit more," Gordon said. "He was throwing harder from the get-go than we've seen him the last couple of starts."

By then, Verlander already had a lead, which Gordon's homer cut in half to 2-1. Once Verlander got in trouble again in the fifth, he was determined to protect it.

In hindsight, Austin Jackson's running catch in left-center field on Eric Hosmer's drive prevented potential disaster, sandwiched in between singles from Jeff Francoeur and Johnny Giavotella. Instead of a tie game, Verlander had runners at the corners with one out, but he had to get through the top two hitters in the order to keep them there.

At this point, watching Verlander approach triple-digit radar readings with command is so common, it's easy to get spoiled by it. The weight of the game and the similar situations Sunday against the Twins might have actually helped the crowd of 31,521 fans appreciate it more.

"That was a pretty tough situation to get out of," Leyland said. "To get Dyson and Escobar, that's pretty tough. They're both pretty good contact hitters."

Dyson entered the night with 50 strikeouts in 308 plate appearances, and had swung and missed at just nine percent of the total strikes he had seen, according to His strikes looking obviously was much higher, and he took a fastball and curveball to fall into a 1-2 count.

He wouldn't offer at Verlander's slider in the dirt, but he couldn't catch up with Verlander's 99-mph heater on the inside corner on his next pitch.

Escobar, whom Verlander struck out on a slider to strand a runner in scoring position in the third inning, almost went by the same script. For him, however, Verlander cranked it up one more tick and sent it off the plate as Escobar swung.

"It's a tight spot," Verlander said. "You want to keep the momentum on your side and we come right back and score some runs the next half inning."

Jackson's double to right and Francoeur's error stretched out the lead in the bottom half, one of three Jackson hits on the night. Verlander gave up an RBI single to Billy Butler, one of three Butler singles to improve him to 21-for-53 against him, but lasted eight innings with eight strikeouts.

Whether it's Verlander's last start at home this year depends a lot on what happens in Chicago this week. But he can't control it.

"You can't get uptight," he said. "This is a fun game. Obviously it is crunch time. It's time to put up or shut up, but I'm confident with our guys. We play our best baseball when our back's against the wall."

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.