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Verlander ends hitless streak in first '14 win
Justin Verlander has been able to call himself a pitching Triple Crown winner, Rookie of the Year, All-Star starter, Cy Young Award winner and MVP. Finally, he now can say he helped his own cause at the plate.
It is an oft-used cliché for pitchers in the National League who provide offensive support for themselves, and a tongue-in-cheek statement for pitchers in the American League who get a hit. It had never been used for Verlander until Saturday's 6-2 Tigers win over the Padres.
He isn't entirely comfortable using it even now.
"Nah, my job is to pitch," Verlander said Saturday after his first two Major League hits and his first run scored supported his seven quality innings. "Don't get me wrong, it feels great to get a hit."
His teammates weren't buying the modesty.
"We're not going to hear the end of it, that's for sure," his catcher, Alex Avila said. "We've got no more leverage."
Verlander's hitless streak had gone on for eight years of Interleague Play and 26 at-bats of futility, the second-longest slump by a Tigers player to begin his Major League career. It had endured a handful of near-misses, from the ball that landed just foul down the right-field line at Miami last September to the well-struck line drive that Joey Votto snared in Cincinnati two years ago.
Verlander remembers those, and plenty others before.
"I think it's kind of been an anomaly that I hadn't had one yet," Verlander said. "I hit one down the right-field line off [Tim] Lincecum in '07. I came close in Colorado. I lined out in Cincy. I hit one an inch foul in Miami last year. I hit one an inch foul down the third-base line -- I forget where that one was, but it was a long time ago."
His streak had reached the point where teammates like Rick Porcello had given enough ribbing, and were pulling for him to get a hit so they wouldn't have to hear about it anymore. They got their wish soon enough.
Verlander came up with a runner on first and two out in the second inning and Ian Kennedy hoping to end a rough first turn through the Tigers' lineup. Verlander took a first-pitch fastball over the outside edge, then got another fastball over the middle of the plate that he couldn't pass up, lashing a ground ball through the middle.
The smile on Verlander's face after he rounded first base showed how much it meant to him. The standing ovation from the large contingent of teammates in the dugout and Tigers fans behind it reflected their appreciation back. Even Verlander's new manager, who hadn't been around for the hitless streak, knew what it meant.
"He'd been talking about it since Spring Training, so I was happy he got his first hit," Brad Ausmus said.
In fact, it came in the one National League ballpark Verlander might have been able to call home. The Padres had the first overall pick in the 2004 Draft, and they used it on a high school shortstop named Matt Bush. The Tigers had the next pick and selected Verlander.
On Saturday night, Kennedy struck out Rajai Davis in the second to strand Verlander on first base to keep the game at 1-1. Verlander returned to the dugout to a showering of high-fives and some hugs, a celebration long enough to forget that he still had a game to pitch.
He had used 31 pitches to get out of the previous inning with one run allowed, stranding two others. The Padres were running up his pitch count by shrugging off his secondary pitches and focusing on the fastball.
"Early in the game they were taking a lot of offspeed," Verlander said. "As the game went on, I realized if I could just throw it for strikes, they'd probably continue to take it."
The second inning was the only one in which Verlander retired the Padres in order, and it was the bottom third of the lineup at that. Still, it gave him a chance to get his pitch count under control.
"He knows how to pace himself," Avila said. "He knows how to pitch. Over the course of the next three innings, if you can make two, three, maybe four quality pitches early in the at-bat, you can get a quick out."
Though the Padres had baserunners the rest of the way, their only other run came when Chase Headley doubled and scored in the fourth. By then, the Tigers had four runs, one of them from Verlander.
Verlander, again facing Kennedy, had a three-ball count in his favor with one out in the fourth, prompting Ausmus to try to tell him to take pitches and try to draw a walk.
"He asked me before he went up what the signs are, and I said, 'Don't worry about it, just do this,'" Ausmus said. "I didn't anticipate wanting to get him to take."
Verlander smiled when told that.
"Nah, I was in the zone," he said.
His liner to right got to Chris Denorfia so quickly that Denorfia nearly threw him out at first, forcing him to pick up speed.
Davis' ensuing single and a Kinsler groundout moved Verlander to third before Torii Hunter's two-run single through the middle plated him for the first run of his career and built a 4-1 Detroit lead.
Not since Porcello in his rookie season of 2009 had a Tigers pitcher posted a multi-hit game. Verlander had a chance at the first three-hit performance by a Tigers hurler in 45 years when he stepped to the plate in the sixth, but Kennedy retired him on a groundout to second.
Verlander (1-1) allowed two runs on eight hits over seven innings, walking one and striking out eight in his first win of the season. Ian Krol struck out two in the eighth, including Yasmani Grandal as the potential tying run, before Austin Jackson's two-run double put the game away.
Kennedy (1-2), part of the three-team trade that brought Max Scherzer to Detroit after the 2009 season, allowed four runs on eight hits over six innings despite seven strikeouts.