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Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Updated: September 30, 11:15 AM ET
Verlander keeps Twins at arm's length

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander's tenure in Detroit hasn't been all wine, roses, winning lottery combinations and three-hit shutouts.

Sure, he pitched in a World Series only two years off the Old Dominion University campus. He threw a no-hitter amid a flock of seagulls against Milwaukee, and his 64 victories since 2006 tie him for third-most in the game behind Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia. He travels in some elite circles, statistically.

But Verlander has also experienced some growing pains. He endured a 17-loss season in 2008, fiddled with different arm slots, and looked sufficiently confused after a beating against the Angels in late April that he issued a public declaration that he really, truly was about to turn the corner.

As his 18-9 record and major league-high 264 strikeouts attest, Verlander wasn't about to promise something he couldn't deliver. The Tigers are just happy that he has the staying power to match his velocity.

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With eight gutty innings and 129 pitches Tuesday night, Verlander beat Minnesota 6-5 at Comerica Park. He increased the Tigers' lead in the American League Central to two games and assured that Detroit can be no worse than tied when this four-game series with the Twins concludes Thursday.

Verlander restored the equilibrium in the Detroit clubhouse and brought a sense of calm back to the city. This is what staff aces do, right?

"I love it," Verlander said. "This is what baseball is all about. We're here at the end of September, and we're in the driver's seat a little bit. The Twins are playing catch-up -- not the other way around. We're where we want to be."

Verlander's day began with a strict adherence to his routine amid some unusual circumstances. The Twins and Tigers met at 12:05 p.m. in the opener of a day-night doubleheader after a rainout Monday night, and Verlander was still in bed when teammate Rick Porcello threw the first pitch. After catching some lunch, he was too nervous to watch more than occasional snippets of Minnesota's 3-2 victory.

It's probably an overstatement to say a full-blown panic would have set in if Detroit had dropped the second game. But the Tigers could sure glimpse anxiety on the horizon.

Detroit led Minnesota by seven games on Sept. 6, but that margin was cut to one before a hooky-playing crowd of 35,243 at Comerica. Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire's team leaned on some solid starting pitching from Nick Blackburn, then sacrifice-bunted up a storm, played superior defense and generally Twinned the Tigers to death.

Verlander rolled into the home clubhouse around 4:30 p.m. -- immersed in that private world that big-game starting pitchers inhabit. It could have been snowing in Detroit, and he might have been oblivious.

Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander leads the majors in pitches thrown. He tossed 129 more in the Tigers' win in the second game of Tuesday's doubleheader with Minnesota.

"He's been doing the same thing through the course of the season," said center fielder Curtis Granderson. "He comes in with his headphones on, and no matter what time it is, he's got the same physical presence. He's just locked in, straight to his locker. He goes ahead with his business, and everybody gets out of his way."

It was clear from the outset that Verlander brought his A-game. He struck out the side in the second inning, getting Michael Cuddyer to wave at a changeup and overpowering Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez with 98 mph fastballs. It hardly seemed fair.

"I don't think I saw a fastball below 98," Cuddyer said. "And I definitely didn't see one over the middle of the plate."

After Detroit built a 5-0 lead on a two-run single by Brandon Inge, Verlander hit a couple of speed bumps. He gave up two runs in a 33-pitch sixth inning, and allowed the Twins to creep within 5-4 on Jason Kubel's RBI double in the eighth.

It ultimately came down to the following situation: Verlander on the mound, Cuddyer at the plate and the potential tying run on second base. With closer Fernando Rodney up in the bullpen, Detroit manager Leyland came to the mound for a conference. Actually, he barely came out long enough for a decent salutation.

"He told me, 'This is your guy. Go get him.' That's all it was," Verlander said.

As Leyland did a quick U-turn back to the dugout, the home crowd cheered its approval. Verlander set down Cuddyer on a grounder to third, and the lead was intact.

"The line I usually use is, 'I don't have anybody better than you,'" Leyland said. "With him, I mean it. Once in a while, I'm not quite so sure. But with him, I mean it."

Granderson's 30th homer gave Rodney a cushion in the ninth, and Detroit survived defensive misplays by Placido Polanco and Granderson in the bottom of the inning to help Verlander tie his career high of 18 victories. It probably won't be enough to wrest the Cy Young Award from front-runner Zack Greinke, but Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Sabathia are all in the conversation.

Verlander's 129-pitch effort was par for the course. He's thrown a major league-high 3,811 pitches this year, and St. Louis' Adam Wainwright is a distant second with 3,524. The Tigers cite several factors for Verlander's ability to pitch deep into games: He is naturally durable at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he works like a demon to keep his legs strong, and as Leyland observed, "He's probably the best-conditioned pitcher we have on this team."

It's never easy to speculate on pitching matchups, but the Twins seem to have a fighting chance to forge a tie in the next two games. Carl Pavano takes on Detroit's Eddie Bonine on Wednesday night, and 14-game-winner Scott Baker opposes Nate Robertson (he of the 5.56 ERA) in the series finale Thursday.

For one night, at least, Leyland could breathe easy. That's no small feat for a guy with a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

"When it's Opening Day in the ninth inning, with a one-run lead, my heart is pumping no different than it is right now," Leyland said. "Pretty fast. So I'll have a Marlboro and slow it down."

When it's late September and a veteran manager is focused on strategy, engrossed by the confrontations and watching his 26-year-old staff ace pitch like a throwback in a pennant race, the routine never gets old. Justin Verlander certainly made the job rewarding Tuesday night.

"My heart rate has been like this ever since I started managing," Leyland said. "And if it changes, I'm going to go to the doctor."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.