Verlander's gem puts Tigers one game from World Series

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Verlander's gem puts Tigers one game from World Series

DETROIT -- You can win the Cy Young Award. You can win the Most Valuable Player. You can even, as Justin Verlander did in 2011, win them both in the same season.

But great pitchers are ultimately made in October. Ask Bob Gibson. Or Sandy Koufax. Or Whitey Ford.

You can be great without an October resume. But pitching best when the games mean the most puts you in a special class of pitcher.

The League Championship Series isn't over yet, but Verlander seems destined to cement that status this month.

On Tuesday night, he blanked the New York Yankees for eight innings while not allowing a hit to anyone not named Ichiro Suzuki. In the ninth, he allowed a leadoff homer to Eduardo Nunez, cutting the Tigers' lead in half.

One out later, he was finished, having thrown an astonishing 132 pitches. Reliever Phil Coke made things interesting by allowing two singles but ultimately finished things off by striking out pinch-hitter Nick Swisher for a 2-1 Detroit victory and a commanding 3-to-0 lead in the ALCS.

Until two weeks ago, Verlander had been rather ordinary in the post-season.

In 2006, just 23, he was 1-2 in four starts with a 5.82 ERA. Even last year, after he enjoyed one of the greatest seasons by a starter in recent history, he was mediocre: 2-1 in four starts with a 5.31.

But this fall, Verlander has elevated his game the way he does his fastball. He allowed a leadoff homer to Coco Crisp in Game 1 of the Division Series against Oakland. Then, he didn't allow another run until Nunez lined a homer to left to open the ninth Tuesday night.

In between, he tossed 23 consecutive shutout innings. From the first inning of his first start through the last inning of his third start, he didn't allow a run to cross the plate.

"Guys that are good as he is, they always seem to rise to the occasion," said Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones. "He's done exactly what an ace does, what a No. 1 guy does. I think (he's cementing that) now. He always wants to be the best.

"Even when he came into spring training this year, he was focused to be the best. He wanted to have a better year than last year. I know that's virtually impossible, but that's his mindset. He wants to better every year."

On Tuesday, in what may have been equal evidence of Verlander's greatness and the Yankees' collective ineptitude, Verlander was not dominant in the traditional sense.

Verlander led all of baseball in strikeouts this season and the Yankees have been striking out this series at a record-setting pace, with 20 in the first two games. And yet Verlander recorded only three strikeouts in 8 13 innings.

But that's also evidence of Verlander's brilliance. He fell behind more than normal in the early innings and had to throw fastballs in hitter's counts. And still the Yankees couldn't make good contact.

"I think tonight, he just made them miss-hit the ball pretty good," said his manager Jim Leyland. "(The Yankees are) a tremendous hitting team with big-time power and it's a difficult lineup to manage against. So I thought (Verlander) was absolutely terrific."

And here is what's genuinely unique about Verlander: while most managers and pitching coaches look for a decline in velocity, with Verlander the telltale sign is increased velocity.

When he senses he's running out of gas, that's when he reaches back and starts throwing his fastball at 98 mph or better.

"He was extending himself a little earlier than normal," revealed Jones. "In the sixth inning, he threw some pitches at 97 mph. We can usually tell when he's trying to get after it."

Verlander is, apparently, "trying to get after it" this October. The A's can confirm that much. He went the distance against them in the deciding Game 5, on the road, and didn't allow a run. The Yankees needed a solo homer in the final inning to ruin his second straight shutout bid.

The Tigers still have to win one more, of course, and the Giants and Cardinals have enough on their plate. But whomever wins the NLCS should be put on notice: Justin Verlander is serious this October.

Advance at your own risk.

Quotes, notes and stars: Hill snaps tie and 0-for-20 skid with one swing

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Quotes, notes and stars: Hill snaps tie and 0-for-20 skid with one swing

BOSTON - Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox' 8-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday afternoon at Fenway Park:

QUOTES:

"After we got him an inning (Tuesday) night because he hadn't pitched in six days, we were not going to with the quick turnaround and get four outs from him,'' - John Farrell on whether Craig Kimbrel was available for the eighth inning.

"Taking three weeks off in the middle of the season is not easy for anybody. And the biggest thing with my shoulder is just trusting that it's strong and healthy.'' - Steven Wright on his struggles since coming off the DL.

"In a situation like that, you know they're going to try to get you to roll over on a double play. That's his job. For me, (my job) is to see the ball deep and put a good swing on it.'' - Aaron Hill, who had been 0-for-20 before singling home the go-ahead run in the eighth.

 

NOTES:

* The win was the Red Sox' 29th come-from-behind win of the year.

* The Sox improved to 13-3 against left-handed starters

* Hanley Ramirez became just the third Red Sox hitter since 1930 to erase a three-run deficit with a two-out grand slam

* Ramirez has knocked in 33 runs in his last 28 Fenway games.

* Dustin Pedroia enjoyed his fourth game with three or more hits in his last five games.

* Pedroia is 18 for his last 24 at Fenway.

* Jackie Bradley has a .941 OPS at home this season.

* Mookie Betts has reached safely in each of his last 19 games.

* Betts has 11 outfield assists this year and three have come against Tampa Bay

* Each one of Xander Bogaerts' last nine homers have come with two strikes.

 

STARS:

1) Hanley Ramirez

Trailing 4-1, the Red Sox got a grand slam from Ramirez to give them their first lead of the game in the fifth. He later walked and scored the go-ahead run in the eighth.

2) Jackie Bradley Jr.

Bradley had been scuffling and dropped back down to the No. 9 spot in the lineup, but broke out with a single, homer, double and two RBI.

3) Aaron Hill

Hill played a fine game at third defensively, and snapped an 0-for-20 skid with an opposite-field, run-scoring single to snap a 6-6 tie.

 

First impressions from Red Sox’ 8-6 win over Rays

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First impressions from Red Sox’ 8-6 win over Rays

BOSTON - First impressions from the Red Sox' 8-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday afternoon at Fenway Park:

*The Red Sox got some much-needed contributions from the bottom of the order.

Aaron Hill was 0-for-20 when he came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, but slapped a tie-breaking single to right to put the Red Sox ahead to stay.

Batting ninth was Jackie Bradley Jr. who was 3-for-17 when he singled in the fifth, homered in the sixth and doubled home a run in the ninth, right after Hill's heroics.

The Sox have been carried offensively by the top four or five in their lineup, but that's a tough way to win.

At some point, others in the batting order have to contribute. The timing couldn't have been better than for that to start on Wednesday afternoon.

* Why was Junichi Tazawa throwing fastballs ahead 0-and-2?

Tazawa entered with the bases loaded and Logan Forsythe due. After two quick strikes, Tazawa kept throwing fastballs to Forsythe, who took the second one and lined it back up the middle for a two-run single.

Tazawa's best pitch is his split-finger, and it seemed like that would have been the more prudent choice there -- to get Forsythe to chase a pitch out of the zone.

It's doubtful that there were concerns about a split bouncing in the dirt and getting away from catcher Sandy Leon.

Strange.

*Hustle counts.

The Rays lost out on a run in the third inning and it changed the game.

 With two outs, the Rays had Tim Beckham at second and Logan Forsythe at first when Kevin Kiermaier stroked a line drive to the gap in right-center.

Beckham jogged toward the plate, but at the same time, Kiermaier attempted to stretch a single into a double. His throw arrived in time for a tag to be placed on him as he slid into second.

Worse, from the Rays' standpoint, Beckham hadn't crossed the plate before the tag was applied at second, so what should have been an automatic run was not a run at all for Tampa Bay.