ST. PETERSBURG -- One is three years removed from winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award, and the other is making a solid case to claim the honor this season. Together, the Tigers' Justin Verlander and the Rays' Jeff Niemann combined to hurl eight innings of brilliant baseball on Friday night, breezing through lineups and constantly one-upping each other to put together a beautiful pitchers' duel. Then the ninth inning happened, and any poetry and elegance was replaced by hard smashes, mistake pitches and sheer run production.
That's a battle the Tigers ended up winning. Detroit opened up the frame by scoring three runs off three Rays relievers, and although Tampa Bay made Fernando Rodney sweat it out in the bottom half, the Tigers prevailed with a 4-3 win in front of 18,596 at Tropicana Field -- a place they had lost six of their previous seven. Thanks to a loss by the Twins, Detroit -- winners of four straight -- moved a season-high six games up in the American League Central with 28 left to play. "Verlander and Niemann were the key, just like it is every night," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said about the matchup, which also played itself out on Sunday, with Verlander also being the winner. "Whoever pitches the best normally wins. They were both brilliant." With runners on first and second and one out in the top of the ninth, Adam Everett hit a first-pitch single to left field off J.P. Howell to give the Tigers their first lead. Curtis Granderson then singled to the right side off Randy Choate and Placido Polanco hit a sacrifice fly off Russ Springer to plate two more runs and provide some cushion. That cushion was only temporary, though. In the bottom half, Rodney -- who hadn't given up an earned run since Aug. 9 -- threw 10 of his first 13 pitches for balls, allowed Jason Bartlett to advance to second without even looking and gave up an RBI single to Carlos Pena and a two-out, run-scoring double to Evan Longoria to make it a one-run game. But with runners on second and third and two outs, he got pinch-hitter Willy Aybar to ground out to first base and notch his 32nd save. "He couldn't throw the ball over the plate, and that's the kiss of death," Leyland said. "But I'm going to give him a day off [on Saturday]. I have a sneaking suspicion he may need a day off." Added Rodney: "There's a lot of emotion out there, you know? I lost my control a little bit." The Rays got their only run off Verlander on a double by Longoria in the second. But after that, the Tigers' 26-year-old right-hander retired 10 of his next 11 batters and finished giving up four hits and a walk while striking out seven to move back into a tie for the AL lead with his 16th win. "I'm not worried about 16, I'm worried about one, and that's today," said Verlander, whose ERA is 2.64 since April 27. "And even if I didn't get the win today, if we came out with the 'W,' I'd be more than happy. I did what I had to. Niemann threw the ball outstanding once again. I knew coming in it was going to be a tough game." The game proved tough on Verlander's pitch count, which finished at 126 -- with 85 of those being strikes. In 24 of Verlander's 29 starts, he's thrown at least 100 pitches, and 14 of those were 115-plus. Leyland acknowledged that he's worried about fatigue at this point in the season for Verlander, but he countered by saying, "They used to sneeze at [125 pitches]." Besides, "I consider myself an old-school-type pitcher," said Verlander, who leads the league in strikeouts, is tied for first in starts and ranks third in innings pitched. Joe Maddon thinks he's a throwback, too. "His stuff plays from about 1850 to present day," the Rays' skipper said. "He's an animal. He has great stuff. He pitches with a lot of enthusiasm and intensity." Detroit was clueless in its second confrontation in five days against Niemann, who hurled seven innings of two-run ball against the Tigers on Sunday. Niemann had retired 14 of 15 hitters and 10 in a row until there were two outs in the top of the sixth. But that's when the imposing 6-foot-9 righty made his only mistake of the night -- a 3-2 hanging breaking ball to Miguel Cabrera that the Tigers first baseman hit out to left field to tie the game at 1 and give him 28 home runs on the year. Niemann left after 7 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and two walks while striking out six and throwing 115 pitches -- 76 for strikes. "We battled every at-bat," said Cabrera, who finished 2-for-4 and has 10 home runs and 34 RBIs since the All-Star break. "I'm glad we won that game today because Verlander pitched a great game, too, you know? It was two pitchers on the mound who are great pitchers. You face guys like that, you have to try to make them work and try to hit a good pitch."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.