Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Verlander learning 24 wins won't be easy
By David Schoenfield
It takes a lot of ability and more than a little luck to win 24 games like Justin Verlander did in 2011, when he became only the third pitcher in 20 years to win that many games. You need the right combination of dominance, run support and bullpen help. He had all three a year ago, most notably from closer Jose Valverde, who didn't blow a save opportunity all season.
In his Opening Day start, Verlander left after eight shutout innings and a 2-0 lead, only to see Valverde cough it up. Wednesday afternoon in Detroit, Verlander was again unhittable. He took a one-hitter into the ninth against the Rays and had thrown only 81 pitches. Verlander had pitched at least eight innings 43 previous times in his career and only twice thrown fewer than 100 pitches. This was looking like one of the best -- and certainly most efficient outings -- of his career.
But this is baseball.
In a fascinating turn of events, the Rays turned a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 victory. Since 2009, the Tigers had been 229-1 when leading after eight innings. It began with a Jeff Keppinger two-strike single to center. Reid Brignac struck out but Desmond Jennings lined a 2-2 fastball to right for another base hit. Verlander got ahead of Carlos Pena 1-2 but threw three balls, bouncing ball four for a wild pitch to score Keppinger. Facing Evan Longoria, Verlander reared back like only he can. He threw a ball, a 99-mph heater that Longoria fouled off and then a 100-mph fastball that Longoria bounced past a diving Miguel Cabrera for a game-tying single.
Maybe a more agile third baseman would have made the play, but it seemed more like seeing-eye single right in the hole. That was it for Verlander after 23 pitches in the inning. Jim Leyland brought in wild lefty Daniel Schlereth to face Matt Joyce, but Joe Maddon hit Elliot Johnson, who worked a walk. Schlereth is ill-suited for a crucial role until he proves he can quit walking right-handers, who posted a .409 OBP off him last season. Maybe Leyland didn't think Maddon would hit for Joyce with the light-hitting Johnson. Whatever the thought process, only then was Valverde brought in and Ben Zobrist grounded a 3-2 fastball up the middle for a two-run single.
After Verlander's 81 pitches through eight innings, the Tigers threw 52 pitches in the ninth. It was ugly or beautiful, depending on your team of choice.
As for Verlander, batters are hitting .107 off him through two starts. And he's 0-1.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.