Justin Verlander wasn’t perfect last night, but he was the best pitcher on the field yet again. The Detroit Tigers evened their three-game series with the Chicago White Sox last night behind eight innings of Verlander and a perfect ninth from Jose Valverde. Along the way, Detroit’s bats provided a few timely hits as well.
The White Sox took a 2-0 lead in the first against JV when Paul Konerko doubled off the left field wall with two outs and Adam Dunn, who was hitting .159 entering the at bat, fouled off numerous pitches before finding a Verlander fastball over the heart of the plate and driving it out to right. As bad as Dunn has been, he still hasn’t lost that power. Sooner or later, you know he’s going to find one, which I guess is why Ozzie Guillen keeps running him out there and Dayan Viciedo stays in Charlotte.
We aren’t used to seeing Verlander make mistakes with his pitches, but the one he made to Dunn wasn’t the only one of the night. After the Tigers finally got to Jake Peavy with three runs in the sixth to take a 4-2 lead, Verlander tried to quick-pitch Konerko but hung a breaking ball. Konerko won’t often let a pitcher off the hook in that situation and he didn’t last night, tying the game with his two-run blast.
The Tigers took the lead again in the eighth when pinch-runner Andy Dirks, who was almost picked off first about three times by Sox reliever Jesse Crain, eventually stole second base. Guillen went to his bullpen to get southpaw Matt Thornton to face the switch-hitting Wilson Betemit, who is a much better hitter from the left side. Turning Betemit around was the right call, but Betemit battled and eventually laced a two-out single up the middle that scored Dirks.
Despite the presence of Joaquin Benoit, obviously ready in the bullpen, Verlander took the hill again for the bottom of the eighth, having already thrown 106 pitches. A one-out walk to Alexei Ramirez put the tying run on base with Konerko and Dunn the scheduled hitters. Verlander turned up the gas and struck out Konerko, then followed that with a beautiful breaking ball to freeze Dunn.
His final line certainly isn’t a impressive as most of his outings, but Verlander displayed the mentality last night that separates him from almost every pitcher in baseball. He seemingly willed his club to victory, even though he made those two mistakes. The way he ended the eighth, even at 125 pitches, if I were Jim Leyland, I would have sent him back out there for the ninth. There would have been no way he would have allowed them to score again. As good as Valverde has been (and Valverde didn’t have any problems sitting the side down in order), I had a feeling that the Tigers were giving Chicago a chance by removing Verlander from the game.
The game had the feel of a playoff contest. Several times throughout the affair I had to remind myself that this was only one game with over two months of the season to go. Win or lose, the Tigers would still be in great shape and Chicago would still be in the race. That said, the White Sox remain the scariest team in the division and keeping them as far behind as possible always seems like a good idea. Losing a game with Verlander on the mound would have been a crushing blow and would have given Chicago a chance to sweep this afternoon. Had they completed a sweep of Detroit, you’d almost have to call the favorites to win the division right there.
Even Verlander himself, in his post-game comments to FSD’s John Keating, talked about how big this series is for both clubs. It’s rare you see the players talking about such things in July, but Verlander doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the moment.
There remains over two months of baseball and this game might not wind up mattering all that much, but anytime you win a divisional game on the road, it is an important win, especially for a club that historically struggles within the division and on the road. The Tigers have turned the tides a bit this year. They’ll need to maintain their successes to wind up playing in October.