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Unparalleled Verlander coming into his own

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

This is Justin Verlander(notes), our Nolan Ryan, our Tom Seaver.

He's a fastball with fuzz, a curveball on a joystick, a changeup with a parachute.

He's a three-day beard, a nine-game winning streak, a no-hitter alert from the moment the lineup is posted.

He's an abrupt end to two days of fat fastballs, 38 hits and 30 runs, and a line of New York Mets crawling over each other to get into the batter's box.

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Justin Verlander has won his last seven starts dating back to May 29, pitching at least seven innings each time.
(Getty Images)

He's a breather for eight relievers over two games, for 249 pitches out of the bullpen alone, for a two-game losing streak that, by Wednesday night, must have felt like eight.

And that's Verlander on a day his fastball lacked its usual precision and attitude, and the strike zone jumped around some, and his slider might just as well have been kicked toward the catcher.

On Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park, having watched uncomfortably as the Mets went for 14 and 16 runs in the first two games of the series (and likely having heard they'd gone for 22 in the two games before that), Verlander narrowed his eyes, took the ball and turned them all into Mets again.

He wouldn't require his no-hitter command (May 7), or his 14-strikeout fastball (Saturday). Just his resoluteness. Just his feel for the ball and the job and the moment.

In the aftermath of his second career no-hitter seven weeks ago, when he came within a single walk of perfection, Verlander had called it "coming into myself as a pitcher," which was to say, at 28, he'd not simply thrown a no-hitter, but pitched it.

"In the past, I'd still get away with it because of my stuff," he said before a recent game in Los Angeles. "My stuff has always been, you know, really good. My success in the past was pretty much based on that. And I felt like that game, in particular, the no-hitter, kind of authenticated what I was speaking about."

Not that there's anything wrong with a 100-mph fastball, feathered with parabolic curves and plodding changeups. A man could piece together a reasonable career and buy a few homes with a lot less.

Verlander had his heart set on much more, however. So he finishes June with six wins, no losses and a 0.92 ERA. After the first three months of the season, he's now 11-3 with a 2.32 ERA. So, on an afternoon where he had to step over the tongues of Detroit Tigers relievers to get to the mound, he threw 98 pitches through five innings, and a major league high 2,099 through 82 games, and holds a four-run lead, and still pitches through the seventh.

That might not seem so heroic, but in 2011, half the game's starting pitchers would have wondered if the bullpen door had been soldered shut.

In a 5-2 win, the difference between Verlander and his smaller-hearted brethren is a 12-pitch sixth and a 10-pitch seventh, two more zeroes, one more trip through the Mets' four through nine hitters, 120 pitches overall, and something like composure at the end of an otherwise jarring series.

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Justin Verlander tried to keep things light with teammate Magglio Ordonez during Wednesday's 16-9 loss to the Mets.

His catcher, Alex Avila(notes), described Verlander the pitcher as a creation of experience and stuff, of wisdom and wherewithal, in a manner of speaking, who then possessed the resolve, "to make them at times bigger than the game."

"His stuff," Avila said, "is so much better than really anybody in baseball."

Broader still, you consider Verlander's body of work, how he carries himself into a game and out of it, and the pure mechanics and the product of them. If the next three months of the season look anything like the first three, he'll pass 100 career wins in August.

At the end of their first 28 years, Greg Maddux had 131 wins, Roger Clemens 134 wins, Seaver 135 wins, and Tom Glavine(notes) 108 wins. They maintained their arms, stretched their mound intellect, pitched a couple more innings when they had to, and finished their careers with more than 300 wins.

"I've never shied away from the fact that the only real goal I have is to be a Hall of Famer when I'm done," Verlander said. "If that happens, most of the other things, the individual things, those will take care of themselves. I just go out there and pitch.

"But," he added with a grin, "as competitive as I am, you hear someone say no one will ever win 300 games again, that makes me want to go out and do it."

So he'll pile pitches upon pitches, innings upon innings, and wins upon wins. Someday they may add up to something big. Really big. In the meantime, he'll take a Thursday afternoon in downtown Detroit, the hottest lineup in the league and three hours, then see if he can't be just slightly bigger than that game.

This is Justin Verlander.

"Guys like him," Avila said, "they don't come around too often."

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