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Verlander stays calm to preserve big win

Verlander stays calm to preserve big win

Verlander stays calm to preserve big win
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander went into the eighth inning on Sunday at Comerica Park cruising towards history, with what would've been his second no-hitter of the season, but having been forced to sit through the fireworks of a Jered Weaver ejection the previous half-inning. By the time Verlander finished the eighth, he was clutching onto the lead for dear life, with the tying run on base and a three-run advantage nearly blown, and fuming over a leadoff bunt and a forearm to his chest.

Verlander escaped with arguably better stuff than he had when he still had a no-hitter going.

"I don't see how that [eighth-inning turmoil] could have hurt Verlander," Angels right fielder Torii Hunter marveled. "He was throwing harder after it happened. He got me with 101 [mph] on the black."

It was the same adrenaline throughout, just from a different source. That explains a lot about why Verlander has been as good as he has this year.

Considering he had just outpitched his main competition for the American League Cy Young Award, in a matchup so anticipated that an electronic billboard advertised "Verlander-Weaver" all weekend over a highway leading into downtown Detroit, he has a very good claim to being the best pitcher going.

"This is an emotional game," Verlander said. "You're out there giving it everything you've got. Obviously, this is a big game for both teams. If something like that happens, sometimes it's hard to control your emotions. You've just kind of let it flow a little bit."

It's not always that easy.

Not only does Verlander have a no-hitter to his credit already this season, on May 7 at Toronto, he now has two no-hit bids taken into the eighth inning since then. Both times, he seemed flat-out unhittable, barely requiring magic from his defense, until the first well-struck drive got him.

But Verlander also has had games when his emotions worked against him. When he faced this same team four weeks ago at Angel Stadium, his parting words earned him an ejection from umpire Joe West in a game in which he had other disagreements.

The difference is his singular focus on his pitching. When he executes, it's very difficult to faze him. That wasn't the case in his younger years, but it's growing apparent now in his sixth Major League season.

"It's adrenaline," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "but you can see him controlling it. He kept his cool."

Compared with his no-hitter in May, Sunday was an emotional powder keg. It began with the buildup leading into the game. Once Jered Weaver began jawing with Magglio Ordonez, thinking he had stood too long to watch his third-inning home run, the emotion in both dugouts picked up a notch.

When Carlos Guillen got his revenge and let Weaver know it on a seventh-inning solo homer that upped the Tigers' lead to 3-0, that emotion was out in the open.

Verlander admitted he was surprised to see Weaver essentially take himself out of the game by throwing his next pitch over Alex Avila's head. At the same time, he was trying to keep his concentration. The delay while Hisanori Takahashi warmed up made that more of a challenge.

It was a stretch in solitude. With a no-hitter going, no one had said a word to him in the dugout for the previous couple of innings.

"The game in Toronto, we had an extremely long inning, too, where I was sitting there for a while," Verlander said. "I just kept recalling on that, saying, 'You know what? Just don't think about things; just worry about making your pitches. Stay calm, and don't get too antsy.'

"Long innings aren't necessarily a bad thing when you score a lot of runs. It was a little different scenario this time, but it didn't get to me."

Neither, amazingly enough, did Erick Aybar's bunt attempt on the first pitch Verlander threw in the eighth inning. It caught Verlander by surprise, as Aybar intended, and Verlander's throw in the dirt put Aybar on second base. The ruling on the play was a two-base error on Verlander, keeping his no-hitter intact.

"I was charging it, probably thinking some bad thoughts about him the whole time, and maybe tried to throw it too hard, which was probably exactly what he wanted," Verlander said. "He wanted to get me fired up."

Verlander dispensed with Mark Trumbo easily on a bouncer to first, then got a Peter Bourjos ground ball to third that caught Aybar between third and home. The rundown went awry when third baseman Don Kelly held onto the ball too long. The situation went quite wrong when Verlander felt Aybar's forearm in his chest on his way home.

"That bothered me a little bit more," Verlander said. "I didn't even realize he did that until I started walking back to the mound, and I felt a little something in my chest. [I thought,] 'That little guy, he threw an elbow at me.'"

By that point, keeping emotions out of it was out of the question. Controlling them was the challenge.

That emotion might have fueled him when he threw a 101-mph fastball that Jeff Mathis fouled back. His composure showed when he followed that with a 88-mph changeup for strike three.

Verlander was then four outs away from history. His second pitch to Maicer Izturis, a second consecutive changeup, ended the bid. Izturis lined it into left, scoring Bourjos.

"In the ninth with nobody on, I might have pitched him a little bit differently," Verlander said, "but that's the game of baseball. I talked about this after the first no-hitter this year: So many things have to go your way for it to happen."

The crowd of 36,878 gave him rousing applause for the effort. Verlander, however, was thinking beyond it. He was staring at Hunter, a .300 hitter off him entering the day, stepping to the plate with a chance to tie it.

"I had a pretty good amount of adrenaline, even after giving up the hit," Verlander said. "Because obviously, then all of a sudden you turn around, and the tying run is on base in a crucial game -- for both teams, really, but especially us."

Once Hunter fouled off back-to-back curveballs in a 1-2 count, Verlander decided to use that adrenaline in his favor. He forgot about the curveball and went to his trademark late heat. He couldn't get his 100-mph fastball past him.

"He's a notorious guess hitter, and he's somebody that's seen the ball off me well," Verlander said. "But after that, my thought was just, 'Hey, let's give him everything you've got. May the best man win.'"

That was the 101-mph fastball, and it sent down Hunter swinging. And while his temper got the better of him when he yelled at Aybar on his way back to the dugout, pointing to his back as a hint of the pitch to come next year, he had those emotions under control when it counted.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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