With pressure on, Verlander delivers

Verlander grits out big win

DETROIT -- Jim Leyland's eighth-inning visit with Justin Verlander lasted about 10 seconds. If the Tigers make the postseason after Tuesday night's 6-5 win over the Twins salvaged a split in the day-night doubleheader, that talk will be remembered for far longer.

There stood Verlander at the 125-pitch mark, hanging on for dear life to the Tigers' lead, trying to salvage a doubleheader split. The tying run stood on second base in Jason Kubel, whose broken-bat bloop single sent Verlander to defeat 10 days earlier. At the plate stood Michael Cuddyer, owner of five home runs against Detroit this year.

In the balance stood the Tigers' lead in the American League Central, which they've held to themselves for the last two months but which had been whittled to one game after the Twins' 3-2 win in the first game Tuesday afternoon.

"It was quick," Verlander said of the visit. "He said, 'Hey, this is your guy. Go get 'em.' That was all it was."

It meant a lot more than words. The sight of a crowd of 30,240 rising to its feet in an ovation for a manager walking off the mound showed how much it meant.

They knew what Leyland knew, what Leyland told Verlander when he went 126 pitches in his last start.

"I basically told him, 'I don't have anybody better than you,'" Leyland said. "That's the line I usually use, and with him, I mean it. Once in a while, I'm not quite so sure, but with him, I mean it."

It's a line Leyland can remember using with just a few pitchers in his career, Doug Drabek and Kevin Brown among them. Most opponents would agree.

The win, Verlander's first in four meetings with Minnesota this year, brought the Tigers back to two games up on the Twins in the AL Central with two games left in this series and five games left overall. Detroit can clinch its first division title in 22 years if it can win the next two games. Minnesota can draw even if it wins both.

If any doubt lingered about where Verlander stood among baseball's young aces, they should be erased now. It isn't that the young right-hander has gone from 17 losses in 2008 to 18 wins this year. It's about situations like these, a pitcher a manager can turn to in what's pretty close to a must-win situation.

For five-plus innings, Verlander flat-out dominated the Twins, retiring 16 of his first 18 batters with seven strikeouts in that stretch. He mixed a high-90s fastball -- which he had in abundance in their last meeting at the Metrodome -- with a sharp breaking ball -- which he did not have. And he all but toyed with some Minnesota hitters.

He used three straight fastballs to set up Cuddyer to swing and miss at a changeup on his way to striking out the side in order in the second inning. Delmon Young went down swinging at back-to-back curveballs to start the fifth. Next, he put Carlos Gomez in an 0-2 hole on 97-mph fastballs in the fifth, sent a heater up and in as a throwaway, then dropped a breaking ball over the plate for strike three.

"There were a couple innings in the middle there that we didn't have much of a chance," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Everything was snapping, his changeup, his fastball was blowing by people there in the middle part and we didn't have much of a chance."

Miguel Cabrera's second-inning solo homer off Twins starter Brian Duensing (5-2) and two-RBI hits from Magglio Ordonez in the third inning and Brandon Inge in the fifth earned Verlander his first five-run lead since July 29. When Verlander gave up two runs in the sixth -- including a double in which Joe Mauer turned on Verlander's 98-mph fastball and pulled it down the line -- it looked like Verlander had survived his bad inning.

Then came the eighth and the top of the order. Back-to-back ground-ball singles from Denard Span and Orlando Cabrera brought the potential tying run to the plate in Mauer. Verlander changed speeds to get a run-scoring groundout to first, but Kubel jumped on his first-pitch 96-mph fastball and drilled it into the gap in left-center.

That brought out Leyland.

"When he pulls a guy, he goes out there and [makes a signal] real quick," catcher Gerald Laird said. "He didn't do that. I [knew] he was going to let him face Cuddyer. He had success all night on him. He earned that right there."

Verlander missed with a curveball, then hit 98 mph on pitches 127 and 128. Another curveball induced a grounder to third, which Inge corralled to fire to first for the out.

There was still drama to come, from Curtis Granderson's insurance homer leading off the bottom of the eighth to the Nick Punto fly ball that flew over his head for an RBI double to put the tying run back in scoring position in the ninth before Fernando Rodney finished off his 36th save. But this was Verlander's game on a night when the Tigers needed him most.

All the offseason work to keep his arm strong late in the year, all the work he puts in between starts, he did for moments like this.

"I thought Verlander was the horse that he is," Leyland said. "He showed it tonight."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.