When manager Jim Leyland suggested after Verlander's last start that he wanted to win too badly, Verlander disagreed. To him, there's no such thing. It's more about how you use that competitiveness.
Taking it into a game and overthrowing, as he had at times on other nights and several times last year, turned out to be self-defeating. Taking it into preparation and executing is a little different. Taking it into a two-on, no-out jam and dialing up the fastball without speeding up the mechanics proved very productive.
"I really liked the way he pitched," Leyland said. "He got himself into a comfort zone. He had a little extra when he needed it."
For the Tigers' first evening home game of the season, Verlander (1-2) delivered a primetime performance. It was the kind that many expect from him but haven't seen often over the last year, but many Tigers felt he still had it in him.
One by one, the Yankees (9-10) tried to wait out Verlander and bring out the inconsistent command that had marked some of his other outings this year. He answered with first-pitch strikes, both with fastballs and breaking balls, and followed with more.
When Verlander put Yankees hitters into two-strike counts, he was able to throw his fastball in and out of the zone while still getting them to chase. Instead of sailing, his fastballs moved, and hitters struggled to catch up. It turned out to be a quality plan of attack against a Yankees lineup that arrived in Detroit in the wee hours of Monday morning after a long Sunday night game at Boston.
Verlander didn't throw 98-99 mph all the time, only when he felt he had to. A lot of those pitches came in the fourth inning, the only time he pitched with a runner in scoring position.
None of the seven hits Verlander allowed went for extra bases, and only twice did they come consecutively. Back-to-back singles from Mark Teixeira and Hideki Matsui put two on with nobody out in what was still a 1-0 game in the fourth. Verlander put Robinson Cano in an 0-2 hole, then tried to overpower him before running the count full.
Cano flied out to right on Verlander's offspeed pitch. By contrast, the usually patient Nick Swisher fanned swinging at a high fastball that registered at 99 mph on the Comerica Park radar gun for the second out. After Melky Cabrera fouled off three straight pitches on a 2-2 count, he swung and missed at a 98-mph heater that rose out of the zone.
"I believe when you overthrow, hitters can see that," Verlander said. "And when you don't, it looks like everything else."
The velocity sustained as Verlander's outing went on. Johnny Damon went down swinging at a 98-mph fastball to end the fifth inning. Jose Molina ended the seventh flying out on a 97-mph heater, Verlander's 98th pitch of the night.
"I've faced him three or four times," Teixeira said. "That's by far the best I've seen him throw."
Not since last July at Cleveland had Verlander struck out nine hitters in a game, though he had back-to-back eight-strikeout games earlier this month before the Angels debacle. But he had never struck out that many guys without a walk.
"When he's throwing like that, you just
hope he makes a mistake," Johnny Damon said. "In the past, we've been able to work walks off of him, but he didn't let us do that tonight."
That, Verlander said, is a product of the adjustment he made during Spring Training to lower his arm angle. He worked on it after each start to the point that he felt like he was throwing sidearm at times during his side sessions before the season began. It's feeling much more comfortable now.
Until the later innings, Verlander needed those zeros to keep the Tigers (11-8) up against Yankees ace CC Sabathia (1-2). Placido Polanco's double and Miguel Cabrera's RBI single in the opening inning comprised the only scoring of the game until the sixth, when Curtis Granderson's bunt single started a one-out rally.
Polanco doubled in Granderson, then came home on Magglio Ordonez's second home run in three days.