The no-hitter was coming. He seemed to know it. Almost certainly, the Toronto Blue Jays knew it. The fans at Rogers Centre, on their feet, shouting their approval across their loyalties, knew it, too.
Behind Verlander, the Detroit Tigers rocked onto their toes. On the bench, his teammates scooched toward the field.
There are men who throw no-hitters, pitchers who come upon history almost by accident. And there are no-hitter throwers, men who insist on it.
Verlander is the latter.
Two-and-a-half months after his 28th birthday, Verlander pitched the second no-hitter of his career, and the 271st in baseball history. Four days after Minnesota Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano's(notes) six-walk, no-hit game against the Chicago White Sox, Verlander came within a couple of inches of a perfect game, walking J.P. Arencibia(notes) at the end of a 12-pitch plate appearance in the eighth inning. The Tigers beat the Blue Jays 9-0.
By the late innings, when most pitchers are relying on adrenaline, guile and prayer, Verlander still had his power fastball, which touched an easy 101 mph several times. Without a reliable curveball, he struck out only four batters – including Rajai Davis(notes) to end the game – but rode his fastball command, late-breaking slider and disappearing changeup for quick outs to become the first to no-hit the Blue Jays in 20 years.
That man was Nolan Ryan.
As of Saturday, only five pitchers have thrown more no-hitters than Verlander's two. Ryan threw seven. Sandy Koufax threw four. Cy Young, Bob Feller and Larry Corcoran threw three.
Ryan threw his second when he was 26 years old, Koufax his second at 27. Both threw a third in the season that followed.
Verlander carries himself similarly, as he is blessed with an elite fastball and the determination to beat hitters with it, to stand on a mound and take them on one at a time until his catcher jubilantly brings the final pitch to him.
It happened again Saturday in Toronto, not four years after he no-hit the Milwaukee Brewers at Comerica Park. He is smart and powerful enough to go after Koufax's four, and quite possibly young and eager enough to go after Ryan's seven. In a time of testing for performance-enhancing drugs that for the moment seems to have taken a greater toll on hitters, and at the end of nine months of baseball that has wrought eight no-hitters, and as Verlander reaches his peak seasons, there are other days when he'll be as close to perfect, and other lineups that will be as overmatched.
“Justin,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters in Toronto, “was just eyelashes away from being perfect.
“I always think he's got his 'A' game. Once in a while he gets out of whack [by] overthrowing. But, he's always got 'A' stuff.”
That Verlander has two no-hitters, Leyland said, “Doesn't surprise me. And it wouldn't surprise me if he gets another one at some point in his career. That's how good his stuff can be on certain days. … You just don't see this kind of stuff very often.”
A former strikeout champion whose sole soft spot appears to be April, Verlander only this week received advice on the matter from former Tigers ace Jack Morris, who had thrown the last no-hitter in team history – in 1984 – before Verlander's against the Brewers.
“He might have the best stuff in the American League, and close to anybody in the National League,” Morris had said. “But he hasn't figured out how to maximize his effort yet.
“I wish I could get into his head and just slow him down because he's got the kind of stuff that he could throw one-, two-, three-hit ball every time he goes out there. I think he does really enjoy the strikeout. … I like to say this: ‘You're never going to catch Nolan Ryan, so quit.' ”
Morris was referencing Ryan's 5,714 strikeouts, not his seven no-hitters. But as the shadows crossed the infield in Toronto, Verlander indeed had kept his pitch count down, sacrificing strikeouts for quick outs. To the minimum 27 batters (Arencibia was erased on a double play), Verlander threw 16 first-pitch strikes. He induced 13 ground-ball outs, only a couple of which stressed his infielders.
His fastball went where he aimed it and got there quickly.
“I just used that to my advantage,” Verlander said.
He threw 108 pitches total, so he had plenty left at the end.
“I really went into another gear there in the seventh,” he said.
Almost before Verlander wrung the contents of the water bucket from his uniform, and while no-hitter No. 2 still hung in the air, what joined it was the notion that Verlander is not done. While no-hitters will remain some hazy confluence of timing and circumstance, of stuff and luck, Verlander would seem to lean less than others on the final element. Like Ryan. Like Koufax.