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Verlander battles struggles in win

Verlander battles struggles in win

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander was down to his last hitter. Not just for the game, but for the season.

The Tigers seemed to be on their way to a win, an eventual 6-4 victory over the Rays, but it was uncertain if their ace would last long enough to earn the win. Verlander was quickly approaching 110 pitches in the fifth inning and had just given up three straight two-out singles. Cliff Floyd stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game with a home run. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez walked out to the mound just to give Verlander a moment to collect himself.

"You could see he was fighting to get it," manager Jim Leyland said. "It's been that kind of year for him."

After a first-pitch fastball off the plate, Verlander got his form back. He challenged Floyd with back-to-back fastballs that the slugger fouled off. He came back with his 113th pitch of the night, a changeup that sent Floyd down on a checked swing.

With that, the long, flustering, 17-loss enigma of a season for Verlander was over. And yet after that victory, he still wished he could go back out again.

Verlander felt he was in the right form once he got going. Now, he has to put it on the shelf for the winter.

"I wish the season was a little bit longer," he said, "so I could go out and build upon what I did tonight. But it's not."

It wasn't consistent dominance. Leyland called Verlander's form "in and out" for much of the outing, and a 30-pitch opening inning set him up for a high pitch count by the middle of the game. When he was in, though, it was the sight that Leyland has wanted to see from his young hurler for much of the second half.

"I saw some things I liked," Leyland said. "When he got smooth and pitching downhill, he threw the heck out of the ball. He really looked good. He just has to do it more often, more consistently."

Until Verlander has a chance to get back on a mound again, he just has to remember how it felt.

That marathon opening inning wasn't a result of a wild early form. The only baserunner Verlander allowed in that frame was a one-out walk to B.J. Upton, and he left him there by sending down Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria swinging -- Pena chasing a 97-mph fastball, Longoria whiffing an offspeed pitch. But all four batters Verlander faced went to full counts. Six of those 30 pitches were two-strike foul balls to extend at-bats.

"In defense of Verlander," Leyland said, "his stuff's so good, he throws so hard, the ball's live, and they do foul pitches off. Well, [against] other guys, they put it in play and either get a hit or make an out. They foul his off."

Leyland also felt, however, that Verlander was a little hyped for a matchup with the eventual American League East champions, though Friday's loss meant the Rays wouldn't clinch that title until the Red Sox lost later in the evening.

Once Magglio Ordonez doubled in two runs ahead of Gary Sheffield's solo homer in the opening inning, Verlander could calm down a bit. Ramon Santiago hit a two-run shot for his third homer in two days and Verlander was in command.

Verlander (11-17) had enough to turn it into his first win since Aug. 22, walking three and striking out eight.

"He needed to win," Leyland said. "He deserved to win."

It was more than the simple result, though Leyland kept Verlander out there that long to get it. He ensured that he won't lead the Majors in losses on his own, since San Francisco's Barry Zito also has 17 defeats. More than that, for Verlander at least, was the stuff.

"I feel like tonight, for the most part, was a major step forward for me," he said. "I think a lot of the game, I was in a good, consistent groove, where I wanted to be. I was able to repeat my delivery and move forward on what I've been working on for the last couple months."

So how does he keep moving forward when this step came in his last start of the year?

"You just have to be able to remember," Verlander said. "I know I'm more than capable to turn this around, and I know what I need to work on."

His turnaround, of course, is key to the Tigers' turnaround next season. Verlander's 1-7 record through the season's first month and a half coincided with the Tigers' season-opening skid. His dominant stretch in the early summer and into the All-Star break timed with Detroit's rise back over .500.

The only other pitcher who is sure to be in the Tigers' rotation next season is Armando Galarraga. The key is for Verlander to be sure in his stuff. This was big for that, even if he has to take it home with him.

"The kid's had a tough year [with] a lot of expectations," Leyland said. "Sometimes I think we don't really understand what a young pitcher this guy is yet. I certainly give him the benefit of the doubt. Is he home free? No. He sped up his delivery a little bit, cut off his breaking ball a few times, and things of that nature. But I saw some good signs, too.

"I'm happy he got a win. He deserves it."

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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