Once again, Justin Verlander took the mound with the Tigers needing a win for their playoff hopes. Again, Verlander delivered, this time with seven innings of one-run ball in a 5-1 win over the Rangers. It has become a pattern over the last three weeks while much of the rotation has been a revolving door with injuries, returns and spot assignments.
Leyland doesn't want Verlander to have to feel the pressure of the workhorse role, and doesn't think it's fair for someone that young to have to perform great every time out.
"I just want him to be one of our five [starters] that goes out there," Leyland said. "And obviously, he's real special."
The way Verlander is pitching lately, there's little reason for him to press.
"No added pressure," Verlander said. "I just want to go out there and do what I can on any given night, give my best effort. Hopefully that results in a win."
Lately it has, and it's giving the Tigers opportunities to make up ground that they need in abundance down the stretch. Wednesday's win, combined with an Indians loss to the White Sox earlier in the day, whittled Detroit's deficit to 5 1/2 games in the American League Central. The Tigers remain four games behind the Yankees for the AL Wild Card.
"If we continue to get performances like this," Leyland said, "we've got a shot."
They're a vast contrast from Verlander's performances at this point last year, when he was running out of life on his fastball and trying to mix his pitches enough to keep hitters off-balance. As the Tigers continue down the home stretch this year needing performances like this, he's the strongest arm they have.
Since Hernandez helped adjust his delivery to get more push and recapture the mechanics of his no-hitter in June, Verlander has scattered three runs on 23 hits over 28 2/3 innings with 26 strikeouts in his four-game winning streak. In the process, he has already matched his win total for all of 2006 with three more starts left before the end of this regular season. He's the first Major Leaguer since Dwight Gooden in 1984-85 to win 17 games in each of his first two seasons, and he's the first Tiger of any level with back-to-back 17-win seasons since Jack Morris in 1986-87.
Verlander's fastball was consistently around the mid-90s on Wednesday, topping out around 96 mph. But just as key was his curveball, which had a sharp drop that kept up the funk Rangers hitters had suffered from Jair Jurrjens on Tuesday night.
Mixing those pitches for seven strikeouts, Verlander (17-5) scattered four hits over five scoreless innings before Michael Young doubled and scored in the sixth to give the Rangers a run. He fanned two batters in the seventh to finish his performance with a respectable total of 105 pitches.
"I think when I got my mechanics back in order, it allowed me to have better life on my fastball and better offspeed stuff, and really better control overall," Verlander said. "With those three things, when you do better at all those aspects, I don't think you can do anything but get better results."
Compared to last September, the results are vastly better. Mechanics explain part of it, but pure experience is also a factor.
"He hit the wall like last year," closer Todd Jones said, "but he didn't hit it as long, and he hit it later in the season. So next year he'll hit that wall in September for maybe a week, maybe a start or two. It's just his arm evolving, getting stronger. It's one of the last things he's got to go through to be elite. I think he'll be able to repeat what he's been doing for more starts as he gets older."
Rangers right-hander Edinson Volquez might have had a chance to compete if not for two home runs on a handful of hitters' counts. He fell behind his first three hitters, including back-to-back 2-0 counts to Placido Polanco and Gary Sheffield. Polanco lined a double into the left field, then when Volquez had to challenge Sheffield, the Tigers slugger was waiting on a fastball and pounced for his first home run since Aug. 10.
"It feels good to be able to let a swing go," Sheffield said.
Volquez (2-1) escaped a third-inning threat with an inning-ending double play, then retired seven consecutive batters before falling behind again. Back-to-back walks to Polanco and Sheffield set up Ordonez, who lined a 1-0 offspeed pitch into the bullpen for his 27th home run of the year.
It was the combination of pitching and power that works so often for the Tigers, though it's less frequent nowadays. Verlander's power pitching, however, might be the lasting step of his stretch run. Whether or not the Tigers are finished in two and a half weeks, Verlander is looking like he'll finish strong.
"This is a totally different situation than I was in last year," Verlander said. "Last year [at this point] I was just going out there and keeping us in games, and this year I'm able to go out there and use my good stuff and get us some wins."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.