All week long, leading up to Sunday's pitching heavyweight title fight between the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander and Los Angeles Angels' Jered Weaver, anticipation was building. The hype even came with a billboard.
People had to get tickets for this one. And those who couldn't had to make sure they were near a TV.
Verlander on the mound has become an event in itself. He's the guy whom you don't want to miss. Because you never know what great feat he'll accomplish next. Another no-hitter? The question isn't if, but when.
But if there's one pitcher who could keep Verlander from getting the Cy Young Award that seems all but guaranteed to be his, it's Weaver. Although besides that impressive 1.88 ERA, Verlander has him beat in every other stat category.
And there's just that added factor of dominance. Weaver can shut an opposing lineup down too, of course. But I'm not sure he has that must-watch aura, that penchant for the dramatic, that Verlander has established.
Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park did not disappoint. Fans got the pitching duel they were hoping to see.
Verlander and Weaver traded scoreless frames through the first two innings. But Weaver gave up a hit to the second batter he faced, Brennan Boesch. And in the home half of the third, the Tigers landed a body blow when Magglio Ordonez sliced a ball down the left-field line for a two-run homer.
Little did we know at the time that Ordonez watching his fly ball to make sure it stayed fair would lead to a whole other batch of drama later on.
Tigers fans — and soon baseball and sports fans from around the country — were more concerned with what Verlander was doing. Or should I say, what he was doing again. Zeroes were being strung together again in a chain along the scoreboard.
With Verlander, the no-hitter is always in mind. Saying the no-hitter is gone when he allows a hit in the first couple of innings is already the oldest joke whenever he pitches. But after the fifth inning, after the sixth inning, the tingles of anticipation set in. The buzz builds. People start posting coy messages on Twitter and Facebook. Text messages and e-mails are sent. Phone calls are made.
If you're not watching the Tigers game right now, you might want to tune in.
Meanwhile, Weaver wasn't only losing the pitching duel, but he completely lost his composure in the seventh inning after Carlos Guillen tagged him for a home run, extending the Tigers' lead to 3-0.
And that's when Sunday's game became about more than a clash between elite pitchers. It was about baseball's so-called unwritten rules. It was about respect. It was personal.
Weaver didn't like Guillen committing two supposed gaffes. First, you don't stare down a pitcher after you hit a home run off of him. Second, you don't stand and watch the longball go into the seats. Obviously, Weaver took exception with Guillen pimping his homer. And that's understandable, though Guillen explained he was sticking up for Ordonez. If one of the Angels' batters did that, it would've been infuriating. Of course, Weaver could've avoided the whole thing by not teeing up a fastball down the middle of the plate.
The bigger point is that Verlander wouldn't have done what Weaver did with the next batter. Launching a fastball over Alex Avila's head presumably sends a message to the Tigers. But what did that really accomplish? Obviously, there's the extreme danger of throwing a fastball near someone's head. (Angels fans will say it was over Avila's head, not at his head. Like that makes it better.) And it also not only got Weaver ejected from the game, but will probably result in a suspension that will hurt his team later on.
Yes, Verlander wouldn't have liked it if Bobby Abreu or Alberto Callaspo watched a home run go out or stared him down. But he would've just jotted the slight down in his mental scorebook and dished out payback the next time.
However, if Weaver's intention was to fire up his Angels teammates, then he may have well accomplished that objective. Leading off the next inning, Erick Aybar laid down a bunt to try and get the Angels' first hit of the game.
Did Aybar break baseball etiquette — another one of those unwritten rules — by trying to break up a no-hitter with a bunt, rather than swing away? I'll admit I screamed at the TV when he laid the bunt down. But after Aybar reached base thanks to a poor throw by Verlander, it was worth remembering that we were looking at a 3-0 ballgame that the Angels could still win. And bunting and using speed to get on base is the way Aybar and the Angels play.
Verlander called it "bush league," which was totally predictable. But the Angels are certainly under no obligation to play along as he tries to make baseball history again. Most people seem to agree with that view. As former New York Jets coach Herman Edwards once reminded us, you play to win the game. (Hello?) The Angels had to rattle Verlander to try and win the game. And Aybar got to him.
But unlike Weaver, Verlander collected himself. Well, eventually. A botched rundown between Don Kelly and Verlander allowed one run to score, and Maicer Izturis got the Angels' first "real" hit to drive in another, and suddenly, the game was far closer than anyone would've expected going into the eighth inning. But when Verlander had to get one last out to preserve the Tigers' lead and get his team out of the inning, he blew away Torii Hunter with a 101 m.p.h. fastball.
That's how you send a message to the other team. That, and winning the game, which the Tigers finally did, 3-2.
It was a huge win in what felt like a playoff game. This one had a little bit of everything. But it would've been so deflating and disheartening if the Tigers hadn't come out with a victory. With the win — and everything that came with it — you might wonder if this was just the thing to fuel the Tigers through the remaining two months of the playoff drive.
And if the Tigers make the playoffs, wouldn't it be cool if they ended up facing the Angels? Don't you want to see these two teams play each other again as soon as possible?