Before Verlander took the mound in his first battle with reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee on Sunday, Tigers manager Jim Leyland predicted he was about to shake off his historic struggles against the Indians. As it turned out, Verlander did it twice.
Friday's 1-0 win over the Indians was far more dramatic.
"This is one of those games, really, where neither starting pitcher should lose that game," Leyland said. "Neither starting pitcher deserves a loss."
For the second time in six days, the Tigers handed a loss to Lee. This time, center fielder Granderson had the would-be game-winning ball to go with it.
But without Verlander, Leyland pointed out, Friday's game never would have reached the point where Granderson's highlight catch over the center-field wall became the difference.
Verlander entered last week with a 4-10 lifetime record against the Indians. At Progressive Field, his numbers were worse -- a 1-7 record and a 9.00 ERA across eight career starts in which he had allowed 42 runs in as many innings, with 53 hits. His lone win here in 2006 was also his only quality start of the bunch.
When he lost his first Major League start here on July 4, 2005, Verlander was armed with just a fastball -- none of his other pitches. On Friday, everything was on display. The fastball was the great deciding pitch.
Verlander's breaking ball caught Ben Francisco looking in the third, sent Victor Martinez swinging helplessly in the fourth and froze Kelly Shoppach in the sixth. Mark DeRosa couldn't catch up with a 97-mph fastball in the second inning, nor could Asdrubal Cabrera in the seventh. A rare slider in the dirt fooled David Dellucci in the second.
Verlander retired 17 of 18 batters between Cabrera's first-inning single and Martinez's seventh-inning double. Eight of those were by strikeout.
That, Leyland explained, was why he thought Cleveland wouldn't rock Verlander this year. After Verlander's seven innings of one-run ball with 11 strikeouts beat Lee and Cleveland last weekend at Comerica Park, Indians manager Eric Wedge said he thought Verlander might've been even better on Friday.
"I think when Justin Verlander pitches the way he's capable of pitching, I don't think there will be a team that's his jinx," Leyland said. "I just don't believe that."
Neither did Verlander, just as he didn't believe his April struggles were a sign of faulty pitching. He had no wins and a 9.00 ERA after his first four starts. Since then -- in his past three games -- he has allowed a lone run over 23 innings and struck out 31 batters.
"This is why I told you guys that I don't see how things can't turn if I continue to throw the ball the way I'm throwing it," Verlander said. "I knew how I felt. I knew my stuff was there. There were just a couple fluke things that were going on."
Somebody might have to convince Lee that there's no jinx. His downfall on Friday was a lone run manufactured by a team that not long ago seemed incapable of creating offense with its legs.
Lee (1-5) matched zeroes with Verlander for his first seven innings while scattering six hits. The deciding rally began with a one-out walk in the eighth to Granderson, who went in motion on a hit-and-run play and managed to slide just under Cabrera's tag.
"The fact that Cliff Lee's so fast to the plate, as soon as Polanco misses [on the swing], I'm like, 'Oh, man,'" Granderson said. "I saw Asdrubal jump to his feet. He put a perfect tag right on the top of my foot, but I got in by a cleat."
After Placido Polanco's groundout advanced Granderson to third, he got home on Clete Thomas. His ground ball to second seemed set to end the threat, but Thomas' speed down the line allowed him to take advantage when second baseman Luis Valbuena double-clutched the throw.
"He just kept going," Leyland said. "I think a lot of guys slow up when they see the guy catch the ball."
That was all the run support Verlander would need. The rest of the support came from Leyland when he came out to the mound following Valbuena's walk leading off the ninth.
"I finally decided this was his game," Leyland said. "There would be no relief in the ninth inning."
Yet the save still went to Granderson. After Grady Sizemore fouled off fastballs at 98 and 99 mph on Verlander's 113th and 114th pitches, the Tribe's center fielder connected on another 99-mph heater and drove it deep to center. Granderson sized it up for a leap at the wall, stretching his glove well over to bring the ball back.
A strikeout of Cabrera finished up Verlander's first shutout since his no-hitter two years ago. It also might have finished off the jinx talk for good.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less