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.

Monday's Red Sox-Rays lineups: Sox hope to extend Tampa Bay's misery

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Monday's Red Sox-Rays lineups: Sox hope to extend Tampa Bay's misery

The Red Sox may be stumbling through the month of June, but they're flying high compared to their opponent tonight.

The Sox are in St. Petersburg, Fla., to take on the free-falling Rays, losers of 11 straight. They'll be sending Eduardo Rodriguez to the mound in hopes of continuing Tampa Bay's misery, at least for the next three games.

The lineups:

RED SOX
Mookie Betts RF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Hanley Ramirez 1B
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
Bryce Brentz LF
Sandy Leon C
Marco Hernandez 3B
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Eduardo Rodriguez P

RAYS
Logan Forsythe 2B
Tim Beckham SS
Evan Longoria 3B
Logan Morrison 1B
Desmond Jennings CF
Oswaldo Arcia RF
Taylor Motter LF
Nick Franklin DH
Curt Casali C
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Blake Snell P

Red Sox recall infielder Mike Miller, ship Cuevas back to PawSox

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Red Sox recall infielder Mike Miller, ship Cuevas back to PawSox

The Red Sox made another pitcher-for-infielder roster swap today, sending William Cuevas back to Pawtucket and bringing up Mike Miller as his replacement.

The Sox had summoned Cuevas from the PawSox over the weekend when they ran through their bullpen in Friday night's come-from-behind victory over Texas and he pitched twice against the Rangers, holding them to two hits over 2 2/3 scoreless innings on Saturday and Sunday. Deven Marrero had been shipped out when Cuevas arrived, leaving the Sox with only one backup infielder (Marco Hernandez).

Now they have two again, with Miller making his first trip to the major leagues. He's been primarily a second baseman for Pawtucket, though he's also seen action at short and third. Miller -- the team's ninth-round selection in the 2012 draft -- had a combined .251 average in 46 games for the PawSox and six games for Double-A Portland.

However, his stay with the Red Sox will likely be as short as Cuevas'. Brock Holt may soon be ready for reactivation, after having missed more than a month because of a concussion, and he could take Miller's roster spot when he returns.

Bogaerts taking aim at Red Sox and MLB hits records

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Bogaerts taking aim at Red Sox and MLB hits records

A change of scenery is a must for the Red Sox after the rough series in Texas, where they were lucky to walk away with one win.

The pitching staff's struggles were the most apparent, but Xander Bogaerts had arguably his worst series of the season -- 2-for-12 at the plate and two errors in the field.

Although Bogaerts now finds himself three points behind José Altuve (.347) for the American League batting lead, he still leads the major leagues with 108 hits. He has more hits than Daniel Murphy, who’s at .349 in the National League.

And despite his weekend struggles, the Boston shortstop is in position to make a run at history  -- the single-season hits record.

Bogaerts is already in a comfortable spot to break Wade Boggs’ Red Sox record of 240 hits, set in 1985. Through 74 games, Bogaerts has 10 more hits than the Hall-of-Famer had at that point in the season.

He's also ahead of the pace set in 2004 by Ichiro Suzuki, who established the MLB record for most hits in a season with 262 that year. Bogarts has five more hits than Ichiro had through 74 games.

There's no guarantee he'll reach 262, or anything close. Ichiro had a strong finishing kick in '04, batting .418 with 159 hits after his 74th game. In fact, in his final 74 games, he hit .433 with 141 hits. He's left challengers in the dust before: Altuve was equal to Ichiro's pace in 2014 -- both had 105 hits in their first 76 games -- but wound up with "only" 225 hits.

So, admittedly, Bogaerts is facing an uphill battle.

He does have a one advantage over Ichiro, though. In 2004, Suzuki -- still playing for the Mariners -- usually had Randy Winn hitting behind him. Although Winn was a respectable player, he doesn’t command the respect of the hitter who's usually behind Bogaerts: David Ortiz.

Opposing pitchers still don’t plan to attack Bogaerts, but it’d only be worse if pretty much anyone other than Ortiz was coming up next.

And there’s one last set of statistics to consider:

Suzuki finished 2004 with 80 games in which he had at least two hits. That’s 49.7 percent of the games he played in.

Bogaerts has done that 33 times -- 44.6 percent of his games. So he needs to string together some big games if he intends to make an improbable run at the 12-year-old record.

Improbable, yes.

But definitely not impossible.