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Verlander continues June dominance

Verlander continues dominance

ATLANTA -- The heat at first pitch was 95 degrees. The heat on Justin Verlander's 110th and final pitch was 99 mph.

"My God, that guy is throwing 100 mph in the sixth inning," Braves slugger Chipper Jones said, after Verlander's seven innings helped the Tigers to a 2-1 win Saturday at Turner Field. "You're just not going to mount much against him. It's really tough for the best hitters in baseball to be able to put that in play consistently."

It's nearly as tough for baseball's best pitchers to do that consistently, but so far this month, Verlander's doing it. His June swoon for hitters has yielded four wins in as many starts, including a no-hitter, 17 consecutive scoreless innings at one point and 35 strikeouts in 29 innings, during which he has allowed only 16 hits.

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Manager Jim Leyland reminds people that this is still a young pitcher who's learning in his second full Major League season.

"You have to be careful you don't get carried away and expect perfection from this kid every time he goes out," Leyland said.

The way Verlander has pitched lately, he's making it difficult for people not to look for greatness when he steps onto the mound.

"You don't have to be, like, 30 years old to be a good pitcher," said Carlos Guillen, who scored both of Detroit's runs in its lowest-scoring win of the season. "He has the ability. He has a good fastball, good stuff and he throws strikes."

Verlander had all of that Saturday, and in the process, gave the Tigers the kind of win they haven't had in a while. They've won just seven times all year when scoring four runs or fewer, and they hadn't won a game with three runs since May 2.

It's not that their pitching has lost games, obviously, but their offense has put up enough runs that they haven't had many chances. The only low-scoring defeats they've had this month were a 3-0 loss to Jorge Sosa and the Mets on June 8 and a 3-2 loss to the Brewers June 13, the day after Verlander's no-hitter.

Leyland isn't picky about his wins, but he was hoping for a game like this somewhere along the schedule. Verlander and Kyle Davies obliged.

"It's nice to win a game, 9-8. It's nice to win one, 2-1," Leyland said. "It's been a while since we won a game like that. That's what you've got to do if you want to win anything; you have to win all kinds of games. You've got to win slugfests now and then, and you have to win 1-0, 3-2, 2-1. If you want to be in anything in September and October, that's what you have to do."

Verlander set the tone by overpowering an Atlanta offense that Kenny Rogers kept off balance less than 24 hours earlier. Jones' leadoff home run in the fourth ended the Braves' scoreless streak at 31 innings, but that was the only tally Verlander allowed.

"I've always said I want to give up less than we score," Verlander said. "They scored two and I gave up one, so I was pleased."

Other than a couple of occasions where he said he felt out of breath, the heat did not seem to affect Verlander, who pitched in such conditions growing up in Virginia. He hit 99 mph on the stadium radar gun three times in the opening inning, en route to striking out the side. He followed up a 99 mph heater with a 100 mph version on consecutive pitches in the fourth against Jeff Francoeur, who reached base with a comebacker off of Verlander's glove.

Verlander retired 11 of 12 batters after that hit, six of them on strikeouts to finish with 11 for the game. His final pitch at 99 mph sent down pinch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia swinging to end the seventh inning with back-to-back strikeouts after fanning Scott Thorman with an offspeed pitch earlier.

"When he's got the curve going, he's obviously pretty tough," Leyland said. "He had it going today, then he surprised them [with] a few fastballs late in counts, got a couple strikeouts. He pitched outstanding, no question about it. Davies did, too."

Davies (3-7) was nearly up to the task while he tried to end a personal three-game losing streak that hadn't seen him last through the sixth inning of any of those defeats. He retired 10 of 11 batters following Guillen's 12th home run of the season, before leaving with one out in the seventh with a left oblique strain.

"I thought he was excellent," Leyland said of Davies. "He mixed his pitches well, spotted his fastball real well, had a good curveball. He pitched outstanding."

Guillen scored Detroit's other run in the second inning, turning an 0-2 count into an eight-pitch at-bat that culminated in a one-out walk. Davies hit Ivan Rodriguez with a 1-2 pitch, moving Guillen to second, before Sean Casey's ground ball through the right side sent him home.

Francoeur's throw beat Guillen to the plate, but it was too high to allow catcher Brian McCann to tag Guillen in time, the third close play at the plate for the Tigers this series.

That, as it turned out, was that. Tim Byrdak recovered from a leadoff double in the eighth to strike out Kelly Johnson trying to bunt the potential tying run to third. Fernando Rodney retired the next two batters, including .330-hitting Edgar Renteria, then closer Todd Jones worked the ninth on one walk. The only fireworks at the end were Bobby Cox's ejection to tie John McGraw for the Major League record.

The last time the Tigers held an opponent to one run over two games was last August. Verlander and Rogers were responsible for that, too, putting up 7-1 and 4-0 wins over the White Sox.

Leyland doesn't want a ton of low-scoring games, of course. He doesn't want his offense to expect a couple runs will get matters done every day. His hitters are too good to let that happen.

They don't expect pitching greatness every game. But the more Verlander pitches, the more greatness he seems to put up lately.

"I think you do expect it from him now," Casey said. "I think the pitchers in the game who have had a lot of success, you start to expect that. You expect great outings from those kind of guys. You look at guys like [Roger] Clemens, Tim Hudson, [John] Smoltz, they did it their first year and they haven't stopped. I think a guy like Verlander, with his stuff, you kind of expect him to have a good outing every time out. Obviously, he's not going to, but you do start to have those expectations."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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