If this is the Justin Verlander the Detroit Tigers can expect the rest of the way, the American League Central race is already over.
Verlander has been pedestrian all season long. Entering the game in Cleveland on Tuesday, Verlander had posted an 11-8 record, but with a 3.88 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, easily the worst numbers he’s registered since 2008 and the second-worst ERA he’s had in his eight full seasons in the big leagues.
On Tuesday, Verlander looked, really for the first time all season, like the guy who won the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young awards and like the guy who probably should have repeated as Cy Young winner last season.
Verlander held the Indians to s single run on just four hits in eight innings to earn his 12th win of the year. He struck out seven and didn’t walk a batter while consistently working his fastball in the upper-90s, twice hitting triple digits. While struggling through his first 23 starts this year, Verlander had lost two miles per hour off of his average fastball. He also struggled to command the strikezone, missing spots with his fastball and putting himself behind in too many counts. His 3.5 walks per nine innings coming into his start in Cleveland were the highest mark in his previous six seasons.
It’s been an elusive solution for Verlander and Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones. While the duo has continued to work and continued to tweak, it wasn’t until this past week that the ace right hander spotted a flaw in his mechanics during a routine bullpen session that may have been the key to turning his season around.
“The adjustment that I made obviously made not just a little impact but a pretty big impact,” said Verlander, who explained his improvement to the media after the game, as quoted by TSN. “Everything I’ve been searching for I was able to find it today. That’s a huge stride in the right direction.”
Part of the reason that the Tigers were such heavy favorites not only to return to the playoff for the third straight year, but to make it back to the World Series was their incredible starting rotation. But the biggest part of that rotation was supposed to have been Verlander; the man widely considered the best pitcher in either league over the past five or six years. Instead, the former AL Rookie of the Year and six-time all-star has been no better than the fourth-best in his own rotation. While Verlander has undoubtedly struggled this year, 11-8 with a 3.88 ERA are numbers than many clubs would love to have from their ace, let alone a guy who has pitched like the number four. It says a lot more about the success that the rest of the staff has had than it does about Verlander’s struggles.
The Tigers have now won 10 consecutive games and 14 of 15 and have opened up a five-game lead over the second place Indians. What’s more, Detroit has taken seven of eight meetings with the Tribe in Cleveland’s home ballpark this year. The Indians are a remarkable 36-14 at home against all other opponents.
Over the past couple of weeks, both the Indians and the third-place Kansas City Royals have been red-hot. Cleveland ran off a winning streak of eight straight that ended last week and the Royals won nine in a row at the same time. During those winning streaks, the Tigers were playing a stretch of games without reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, who missed five straight games with an abdominal strain after missing three games due to a bad hip flexor. Detroit went 7-1 in games that Cabrera did not play, and swept an eight-game home stand before heading to Cleveland for a showdown series this week.
Detroit took the best punch that the Royals could offer, and made sure that Kansas City gained no ground. They took the best punch Cleveland had, and has opened up an even bigger lead on the Tribe.
And now, Cabrera is back in the lineup.
And now, Verlander has found it.
The American League Central is a far stronger division than had been expected, but the Tigers are not only the class of that group, but the class of the American League as well.