DETROIT -- This is why the Tigers held back Justin Verlander a couple days out of the All-Star break, to beat the White Sox and Jake Peavy to open a crucial division clash.The way he did it, outpitching Peavy in a 4-2 Tigers win over the White Sox before a sellout crowd of 44,572 at Comerica Park Friday night, was a reminder why it's so fun to watch him compete in a big game.
The look from Alex Avila and Gordon Beckham at the plate in the eighth inning might have summed it up nicely.
By now, Verlander's 100-mph fastballs with pitch counts higher than that have become commonplace, almost an expectation. The way his 115th pitch snapped Beckham's bat at the handle as he checked his swing was rare.
Both Verlander and Avila can remember that happening before. Avila tried to explain the physics of it, how the power on his pitch combined with the energy on Beckham's partial swing would set up something like that.
"It was a check swing, so I was expecting to catch the ball," Avila said. "And all of a sudden, the ball hit the bat, and I didn't know where the bat was or the ball was.
"I think [Beckham] was as shocked as anybody. He kind of looked up and looked at his bat. I looked at him and I kind of smiled. He smiled back. It was like, 'Man, what just happened there?' I think everybody was just kind of shocked."
At that point, Verlander seemed in complete control on his way to retiring 16 of his final 18 batters after Alejandro De Aza's two-run homer in the third inning. Yet at that point, the White Sox still had the potential tying run on deck in De Aza, who had half of Chicago's four hits off Verlander as well as a walk.
"That was fun," Verlander said. "It really got me pumped up when the crowd got into it. After that, I really wanted to throw another fastball, but my judgment was a little obscured there and Alex called a curveball [on the next pitch]. So I was like, 'All right, that's probably right.'"
Even if the win hadn't brought the Tigers (50-44) to within half a game of the White Sox, giving them a chance to take over the division lead for the first time since May 1, it would've been special, two pitchers at the top of their games. The ramifications merely piled on.
"I love pitching in games like this," Peavy said. "I love pitching in big games. ... You make a pitch and it changes the whole night and you have a chance to win the game or it's tied."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland loves those games, too.
"I think you just enjoy the moment and accept it for what it is," he said.
With Chris Sale on the mound for the White Sox on Saturday, taking the division lead won't be easy, even if Rick Porcello can reprise the stingy pitching he has delivered against Chicago (50-43) this year. Add in Jacob Turner's matchup against Philip Humber on Sunday, and Friday's matchup was arguably a must-win if the Tigers wanted a chance to win this series.
Once again, Verlander was up to the task. Take away De Aza's two-run homer, and Verlander would have a shutout. Then again, take away the third inning, and Peavy would've been dueling him zero for zero.
The difference came down to the way Verlander settled down after De Aza sent his 95-mph fastball deep to right for a 2-0 White Sox lead, and the way the Tigers capitalized on a Peavy mistake.
"I love pitching in games like this. I wasn't quite good enough," Peavy continued. "I didn't make a pitch. The ball just didn't go our way. You know you have to be good. Verlander is just fun times, on the road."
A two-out fastball hit Quintin Berry and extended the third inning for the middle of the Tigers order, the same hitters Peavy sent down swinging on his way to five consecutive strikeouts to start the game.
They still had Jhonny Peralta on third base following his leadoff double, despite a double-play grounder Peavy had induced from Austin Jackson.
Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Delmon Young all followed with hits, with Young's double plating the go-ahead run.
Both Cabrera and Fielder worked Peavy to full counts before delivering singles -- Cabrera centering a nasty cutter and lining it through the middle, Fielder grounding a slider through the teeth of the infield shift.
Add in Jackson's seventh-inning single, and every Tigers run scored on a two-out hit. They entered the day batting a league-best .295 with runners in scoring position, but .236 with a runner on third and two outs.
Peavy threw 31 pitches in the third inning, 91 in his other six. He retired 11 straight Tigers after Young's double. The way Verlander delivered, it didn't matter.
"The only way you beat a guy like [Peavy] is to out-compete him," Leyland said. "You'd better compete. I'm talking about every at-bat, you've got to compete, because that one hit you get might be the one that makes the difference in a game. And that actually really kind of happened tonight. It was as advertised, both guys."