On Sunday, Justin Verlander provided yet another example of why he's been the best pitcher in baseball this season.
No, he didn't hold the Colorado Rockies hitless past the sixth inning. Troy Tulowitzki took care of that by leading off the second inning with a single.
So there were no streams of "If you can watch the Tigers-Rockies game, you might want to turn over to it right now" or "Justin Verlander's doing it again" posts on Twitter. No coy attempts to avoid saying the words "no-hitter" to invoke a jinx. No text messages among friends, asking if they're watching Verlander or telling them to get to a TV immediately.
Maybe Sunday's game lacked the thrill of singular historical achievement or exhibit of greatness. Maybe it didn't have you leaning off the edge of your sofa or armchair. Maybe it didn't give you that tingly feeling in your chest, the one that makes you thankful you get to watch a pitcher like Verlander on a regular basis and that he pitches for your Detroit Tigers.
But it's not like Verlander wasn't his typically impressive self against the Rockies. He pitched his second consecutive complete game, holding Colorado to one run and four hits. By the time Ty Wigginton hit a home run off Verlander, the Tigers were already comfortably ahead with a 4-0 lead. Wigginton's homer was only the third hit the Rockies had managed by then. The Coors Field scoreboard didn't have a nice, clean line of zeroes, but Verlander was dominating the opposition yet again.
You wouldn't know it by asking him, however.
"This start wasn’t that great," he said. "Early in the game especially, my fastball control wasn’t anywhere near where it should be. But I was able to keep guys off balance."
Is he being modest? Certainly not. Verlander might be one of the least modest athletes we've seen in Detroit sports. That's part of what makes him great. He knows he's good. He expects to be the best, to absolutely shut down the team he faces. In the past, that confidence bordered on overconfidence, as Verlander would get himself into trouble by trying to blow every hitter away. He'd waste pitches in the process and tire himself out. That gave the other team a chance, knowing they could wait for him to beat himself.
That has very obviously changed. Verlander has become the latest example of the pitcher with the great stuff who's learned that there are a number of ways to get hitters out besides blowing a fastball by them or making them look silly with a curveball. Of course, Verlander still does that plenty. But now, he seems to have a better sense of the game, of how to work the hitters and employ those his out pitches at the best time, rather than try to force the issue.
Perhaps most importantly for the Tigers, Verlander came through with a stellar effort when his team really needed a win. The Tigers looked bad in losing their last two games against the Rockies. With nine runs in two games, the offense was producing as needed.
But Rick Porcello appeared to be psyched out by Coors Field on Friday, afraid to pitch to contact. (Maybe Jim Leyland starting Alex Avila at third base and Ryan Raburn had something to do with that, as well.) Phil Coke made a hard-luck season even harder by walking seven batters on Saturday. Maybe the thin Denver air had an effect.
Enter Verlander, whose stuff might even work in outer space. A staff ace isn't just the best pitcher on the team. He stops losing streaks. Facing a sweep in Colorado, followed by three games at Dodger Stadium, the Tigers looked like they might be on the verge of plunging into another long losing streak, the type of plunge that kept them from overtaking the Indians in the AL Central.
Instead, the Tigers got a 9-1 victory. Two straight losses to the Rockies looked more like a momentary setback. Team confidence was restored, perhaps best indicated by the lineup pouring on five more runs in the last three innings, punctuated by back-to-back homers by Brennan Boesch and Miguel Cabrera in the ninth.
Once Verlander got Tulowitzki to fly out for the final out of the game, he had his fifth straight win. He hasn't lost in his past 10 starts, dating back to April 27. For the fifth time this season, Verlander held the opposing lineup to one run or less. In eight of his 16 appearances, he's allowed four hits or fewer.
Verlander leads the majors with 120 2/3 innings pitched. His 110 strikeouts are also tops among his peers. His nine wins are tied for the major league lead. (And his three losses are tied for the second fewest among pitchers with at least 15 starts.) His 2.54 ERA is fourth in the AL and seventh in the majors. Only three other pitchers rank above him in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this season.
But maybe the best statistic to point out just how dominant Verlander has been, as pointed out by ESPN's Stats & Info blog, is that his 0.85 WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched) leads the majors. Since baseball went to the divisional format (1969), only two pitchers finished with a WHIP of less than 0.90 with 15 or more starts. And each of them (Greg Maddux in 1994-95 and Pedro Martinez in 2000) went on to win the Cy Young Award.
Sunday was just business as usual for No. 35.