When Justin Verlander tossed 5 1/3 innings to beat the Mariners last week, manager Jim Leyland said he'd like to see Verlander get one more inning out of that stuff. On a night when the Tigers needed innings badly, Verlander was standing there on the mound, waiting for one of baseball's best lineups to step in.
"We happened to lose a couple in a row. I wanted to be that guy to stop it," Verlander said after Tuesday's 7-2 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park. "I was going out there on that mission, I guess you could say."
He did it with what he considered his best stuff of the year, possibly some of the best of his young career. On the same field where Daisuke Matsuzaka made an impression on the Tigers on Monday night, Tuesday was Verlander's turn. By holding the Red Sox scoreless after a first-inning tally until a Kevin Youkilis homer in the eighth, Verlander allowed his Tigers to hack away at knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
It was a three-run game for much of the evening. The way Verlander was pitching, though, even the mighty Boston offense couldn't close in.
"This guy," Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said, "when he's trying to throw a strike, he can throw it at 96, 97 [mph] like it's nothing. When he's on, he can throw 100. Then he's got the changeup and the breaking ball."
All of them were on display Tuesday. More importantly, Verlander mixed them in a way that left hitters guessing. After three first-inning singles turned into an early lead for Boston, Verlander retired 21 of the next 23 batters he faced, six of them striking out on various pitches.
J.D. Drew went down swinging at an 82-mph breaking ball following a 99-mph heater in the fourth. Manny Ramirez, who popped out to third base on a 100-mph fastball in the fourth, was caught looking at a changeup on the outside corner for a called third strike in the sixth after a 99-mph fastball and an 86-mph offspeed. Coco Crisp was ahead on a 3-0 count in the fourth before four straight Verlander fastballs sent him down swinging, the last at 99.
"He had everything going," Leyland said. "He reached back a little bit and it came easy."
Ortiz had his share, too.
"What makes him good is that he can change speeds," Ortiz said. "When he struck me out [in the first], he threw a fastball and then three changeups in a row and then a fastball at 98. That's pretty good. That's what pitching is all about."
Not only did the Tigers need Verlander to pitch well, this game was about him pitching deep. With long relievers Wilfredo Ledezma and Jason Grilli available only in an emergency along with lefty Tim Brydak, Leyland joked before the game that Verlander was his long reliever.
"Seemed like the first hitter of every inning ... he got us out quick," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We were trying to work pitch counts. He was ready to pitch right away every inning. He features some of the best stuff in the league."
Seven strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings steadily raised the pitch count. Yet Verlander (4-1), who battled bronchitis in his last outing, had enough strength going that the pitches had little effect on his stuff until the very end. He hit 99 mph on his 108th pitch of the night for a called third strike to end the seventh.
"I felt like the ball was coming out of my hand pretty good," Verlander said. "I felt like I was throwing it pretty good, pretty hard tonight."
It was good enough at that point that Leyland had no hesitation about sending him out for the eighth with the top of the Red Sox order due up, though he didn't want him topping 120 pitches. Verlander was ready so quickly that the sellout crowd of 37,031 was still singing Sweet Caroline without the music as Verlander fired away at Alex Cora.
Cora struck out swinging at a curveball, then leadoff man Julio Lugo hit a comebacker. After a first-pitch ball, he went with a 97-mph fastball on his 120th pitch of the night, which Youkilis drove deep into center field.
"Yeah, he hit that one into the night," Leyland said. "That was a bomb, but it only counted once."
By then, the Tigers had long since built a lead to withstand that. After Brandon Inge's solo homer in the third ended a 16-inning scoreless streak for Wakefield, Curtis Granderson and Gary Sheffield singled to set up Magglio Ordonez, 13-for-30 lifetime off Wakefield and a .356 career hitter at Fenway entering the night. Ordonez drove a Wakefield knuckleball over the Green Monster and out of the park for a three-run homer.
Wakefield (4-4) lasted seven-plus innings, but his five runs allowed marked the most he'd given up all season. Ivan Rodriguez, Craig Monroe and Sean Casey added consecutive RBI hits off Brendan Donnelly in the eighth.
Wakefield said afterward that the third-inning outburst essentially decided the game. Verlander isn't quite at the point yet where opponents have to feel that way going in, but outings like this suggest don't go unnoticed.
"I think the big thing for him is when he gets consistently where he can throw at pitch at any time in the count," Leyland said.
Tuesday suggested he's not far off.
"The guy is throwing 95 to 100 miles per hour with a good breaking ball and a changeup he mixes in every once in a while," Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli said. "It's a tough day. There's nothing you can do about it."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.