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Monday, May 16, 2011
Here come the Tigers: Verlander leads surge

By Steve Berthiaume

Justin Verlander
Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander is leading a streaking Detroit team.
The Indians started 20-8. Royals phenom Eric Hosmer, the first tangible sign of the promised franchise revival in Kansas City, has two homers and five RBIs in his first eight major league games. Ozzie Guillen was tweeting from the White Sox locker room only moments after being ejected. The Twins are the traffic accident at which gawkers slow down and stare as they drive by. Through all of this, the Detroit Tigers have been merely the AL Central's back story. But that's changing.

On May 2, Detroit was overlooked and ignored as it sputtered to a seventh straight loss and a 12-17 start. The Tigers have lost just once since. Detroit has won seven straight and 10 of its past 11. A win tonight at Comerica Park in the first of a two-game visit from Toronto would be eight straight wins and match the Tigers' longest winning streak since 1984. Yes, THAT 1984. Detroit's year of Gibson, Morris, Trammell, Whitaker and Barbaro Garbey (couldn't resist.)

Clearly, the explanation for this Tigers' wake- up call begins with Justin Verlander. Then again, we should have seen this coming. Here from ESPN Stats & Info are Verlander's numbers in May over the past three seasons:

Starts: 15
W-L: 11-2
ERA: 1.99
SO-BB: 116-31
Opp. Avg: .170

In his past two starts, Verlander has allowed just two hits over 17 innings, but what makes Detroit's ace even more interesting is the different ways he's beating his opponents. In his no-hitter at Toronto, Verlander blew away the Blue Jays, coming just one walk away from a perfect game. He was untouchable, with an average fastball velocity of 97.3 mph. Verlander threw five pitches over 100 mph and all five came in either the seventh or eighth inning. Even his non-fastballs were power pitches: 23 sliders, the second-most he's thrown in a game over the past three seasons.

Last Friday, in his 3-1 win over the Royals at Detroit, Verlander changed his game plan: freezing Kansas City hitters waiting on those fastballs with kneebuckling curves. According to ESPN S&I, Verlander threw 24 curveballs among his 105 pitches, his highest percentage of curveballs in a start this season. Kansas City hitters were 0-for-8 on at-bats ending with a curveball, including four strikeouts.

Brad Penny used to be a power pitcher. No more. Penny signed a bargain free agent deal with Detroit: 1 year for $3 million with another $3 million in incentives. Through his first four starts, Penny was as far away from a performance bonus as a player could be, posting an 8.44 ERA and 1.69 WHIP. Over his last five starts, however, he's 4-1 with a 1.51 ERA and 0.93 WHIP.

Penny is now getting batters to hit pitches for outs. Over the course of the last few weeks, Penny has featured a new sinking two-seamer and it's working. FanGraphs lists Penny's O-Contact Percentage, which is the percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside the strike zone, at 82.8 percent, by far the highest of his career and a huge increase over the MLB average of 67.2 percent. Penny's percentage of strikes that were swung at and missed is only 4.4 percent, by far the lowest of his career and barely half the 8.4 percent average. Penny's K/9 ratio is down to 3.63, a significant drop from his 5.66 mark each of the previous two seasons. He's not missing any bats but he's creating pitch-to-contact outs.

Penny's contact percentage is 90.1 percent, by far the highest of his career and well above the league's 80.8 percent average but he's effectively letting his fielders behind him record the outs. Penny's BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is down to .251 this season, a huge improvement from his .326, .300 and .312 marks over the previous three seasons. He threw 15 groundball outs in Saturday's 3-0 win over the Royals. Opponents are hitting only .245 against Penny, a vast improvement over his .293 mark last year and his .267 career average.

Today, Max Scherzer faces the Blue Jays and attempts to improve his record to 7-0. Scherzer's 3.20 ERA is second among Tigers' starters only to Verlander and he's struck out 51 batters in 50 2/3 innings. Tuesday, Rick Porcello tries to match Verlander and Penny with his fourth win. No, it's not as sexy as the Phillies' Phab Four rotation but then again, those 1984 Tigers did not have a 20-game winner on their staff. This might be a modern-day version of Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox.

The hitting has been there to support it as well. The Tigers have two of baseball's hottest bats. Victor Martinez is batting .468 over a 13-game hitting streak that includes two homers and 15 RBIs. Jhonny Peralta is batting .441 over a 10-game hitting streak with four homers and 11 RBIs. Miguel Cabrera's spring training alcohol issue has been a non-factor with Cabrera producing at a .309/.440/.540 clip with seven homers and 27 RBIs while Alex Avila is developing, both offensively and defensively, into one of the American League's best catchers.

Cleveland started 20-8 but has gone just 4-5 since. Detroit is 10-1 since May 2. While they're not the '84 Tigers, they still seem to have a little bit of Barbaro Garbey in them.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN.