Justin Verlander Delivers When Detroit Tigers Need Him Most

Phil WatsonCorrespondent IOctober 14, 2011

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 13:  Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers watches a two-run home run by Nelson Cruz #17 of the Texas Rangers in the eighth inning of Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park on October 13, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

It has already been a magical season for the Detroit Tigers and their ace, Justin Verlander.

The Tigers took apart the American League Central after the All-Star break, turning what had been a tight race with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox into a runaway, winning the division by 15 games after going 46-24 after the break, including a 32-14 mark against divisional opponents during that stretch.

But the Tigers were up against it Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park, trailing the Texas Rangers three games to one in the American League Championship Series and facing the prospect of not having their two best relievers, Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde, available due to their excessive workloads over the previous three days.

So it was left to Verlander—who was 24-5 during the regular season, is a lock for the AL Cy Young Award and will likely receive substantial support in the Most Valuable Player balloting—to do what an ace does, keep his team alive to fight another day.

What Verlander did was deliver a performance reminiscent of the great aces from bygone eras, when you might get your licks against a Bob Gibson or a Catfish Hunter or a Whitey Ford, but you just can't quite knock them out.

Verlander has had better statistical lines this season than what he posted Thursday, when he went 7 1/3 innings while allowing four runs on eight hits with three walks and eight strikeouts.

But by taking the game into the eighth inning and throwing a career-high 133 pitches in the process, Verlander simplified the game for manager Jim Leyland by getting him to Leyland's designated closer-for-a-day, left-hander Phil Coke.

Coke was similarly not perfect, allowing a run while getting the final five outs during harrowing eighth and ninth innings and recorded the final out with the go-ahead run at the plate, but Coke was good enough for the Tigers to get the 7-5 win and force the series back to Arlington for Game 6, scheduled for Saturday.

During a season in which Verlander had thrown nearly 500 more pitches than anyone else in baseball—4,301 to be exact, with St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter next on the list with 3,876—the Tiger ace hardly looked arm-weary. He touched 102 mph on the radar gun for the first time all season and his 133rd pitch was a 100-mph fastball that Nelson Cruz turned around for a home run off the left-field foul pole with one out in the eighth inning.

For Cruz, it was his fifth home run of the series, the most ever in a League Championship Series. Cruz joined Reggie Jackson in 1977, Ken Griffey Jr. in 1995, Juan Gonzalez in 1996 and Chase Utley in 2009 as the only players to hit five home runs in a single series.

Detroit got the bounces Thursday, specifically the bounce Miguel Cabrera's ground ball took off the third-base bag that turned a likely double play into an RBI double.

Even though the lineup resembles a M*A*S*H* unit, with Delmon Young, Victor Martinez and Alex Avila all nursing ailments that would likely land them on the disabled list during the regular season, the Tigers refuse to go away, which has made for a closely played series that represents October baseball at its most entertaining.