"Interesting way to get my first Opening Day win, that's for sure," Verlander said with a smile after the Tigers' 4-2 win over the Twins on Monday at frigid Target Field.
Of all the games in which the Tigers were going to unleash the bullpen-by-committee, this seemed like the least likely. Verlander is usually his own bullpen committee, if not his own closer on some days.
Remember, he pitched eight scoreless innings on a beautiful afternoon at Comerica Park to open the 2012 season and ended up with his third straight no-decision after then-closer Jose Valverde blew the save.
Verlander seemed well on his way to a similar gem on Monday thanks to the way he was changing speeds and dropping curveballs on an aggressive Twins lineup. But with 91 pitches through five innings on a day when the temperatures were in the low 30s, he wasn't going to get stretched past 100 pitches.
"He wanted to stay in, obviously, but that's what I get paid for," manager Jim Leyland said. "And he knows in his heart that's the right thing to do early in the season. I wasn't going to take any chances."
As Al Alburquerque was staring down Chris Parmelee with a full count and the bases loaded in the seventh, with the tying run on third base, Verlander seemed poised for the same fate as last year, watching a lead slip away. Alburquerque had other thoughts.
"I was confident," Alburquerque said. "I'm saying, 'I know I can strike out that guy,' because after the second hitter, my slider, I see good spin, and I said, 'I got it. I go.'"
Alburquerque was confident enough that he was willing to throw a slider out of the strike zone on a full count, knowing he'd be walking in a run if Parmelee didn't swing.
"I know he's going to swing," he said. "I threw a couple [of sliders] for a strike, and he said, 'Oh, he throws it for a strike.' If I throw one for a ball, I know he's going to swing, because it looks the same."
Alburquerque did not lack for confidence, nor did Joaquin Benoit after him in a four-out hold, nor Phil Coke after that for the final two outs and the first save of the year. On a day when it looked full well as though Verlander would grab the spotlight and not let go, he watched from the clubhouse while the bullpen-by-committee took over.
"There's no question in my mind," Leyland said, "that was the best move to make for the Tigers organization, for Justin Verlander, for the team. First of the game of the season, to me, was a no-brainer."
Verlander understood, because of the conditions.
"I argued a little bit, tried to get back in there," he said, "but I understand."
Leyland replaced Verlander for the sixth inning hoping that Drew Smyly would be the bridge to the ninth with a three-run lead. Leyland stuck with Smyly after he escaped his first bases-loaded jam with a lone run allowed in the sixth on a wild pitch. The escape really came from Prince Fielder, who scooped Jhonny Peralta's throw out of the dirt at first base for the out.
"Probably the play of the game," Leyland said of the defensive play of Fielder, who doubled in a run with an opposite-field grounder just inside third base in the opening inning before scoring an insurance run on a wild pitch in the eighth.
Once Smyly loaded the bases again in the seventh, this time on back-to-back singles and a one-out walk, Leyland had to make other arrangements. He had to break out the committee sooner than he hoped.
"We did just what we told everybody we were going to be doing," Leyland said. "We mixed and matched. Alburquerque got the big strikeout. He hung the slider to [Ryan] Doumit [for an RBI single], but he got the big strikeout then. That's why we went with him, because we feel he's got the big strikeout pitch."
Alburquerque actually got back-to-back strikeouts to strand the tying run on third in a 3-2 game. He fired back-to-back fastballs past Trevor Plouffe after he swung and missed at a slider, and it gave him the confidence to go from there.
"I tried to get my confidence, and today I got it after the second hitter," Alburquerque said. "I said, 'I can get it. It's my job. I need to pitch good in my role.'"
Said Plouffe: "He pitched me different than he had before, so he won that battle."
Benoit worked more than three outs in just three regular-season appearances in 2011, and seven times last year. Once Andy Dirks' running catch down the left-field line on Joe Mauer stranded Aaron Hicks on first, Leyland had a decision to make for the ninth with the right-handed-hitting Josh Willingham due up.
Fielder's rolling slide into the plate on Josh Roenicke's wild pitch provided the insurance tally for Benoit to start off the ninth. One pitch and one Willingham popup later, Coke dashed in from the bullpen to finish the job.
"It's special to be asked to do it," Coke said. "And yes, if asked, I'm going to do my best. But as Skip said, it's closer-by-committee."
This was the bullpen-by-committee in a game few might have expected it. It worked about as well as they could have planned.
"We're going to be maneuvering. That's what we're going to have to do, and today it worked out pretty good," Leyland said. "But the Verlander thing, that was a no-brainer for me."