Kansas City, Mo. As temperatures neared 100 and Justin Verlander’s pitch count mounted, Jim Leyland thought seriously about replacing his hard-working All-Star.
But with whom?
“No matter where I looked — my bullpen, their bullpen, in the stands — I couldn’t find anybody any better,” Leyland quipped. “So he’s going to be out there.”
With the heat index reaching 113 on the stadium concourse, Verlander threw 119 pitches in 7 2/3 innings and beat Kansas City, 2-1, Sunday afternoon, vaulting Detroit into first place in the AL Central and making him the first Tigers pitcher in 24 years with 12 wins prior to the All-Star break.
“I knew it would be a grind out there, as hot as it was,” Verlander said. “I took my time between pitches and just tried to slow things down a little bit. I felt like that helped.”
The 28-year-old right-hander (12-4) threw 82 strikes and improved to 12-2 in 18 starts against the Royals. The first Tiger since Jack Morris in 1987 with 12 wins before the break, he struck out the side in the second and sixth and fanned nine altogether, raising his league-leading strikeout total to 147. He allowed six hits and did not walk a batter while getting charged with one unearned run. He has not allowed more than two runs in nine straight starts.
Verlander could remember only one game this hot.
“Maybe Atlanta a year or two ago,” he said. “It was smoking-hot there, too. I just tried to take all the time I could to get my breath and not let myself get in fast-forward mode and all of a sudden find yourself with a couple of guys on and you’re gassed.”
The Royals, who lost three of the four games against their AL Central rivals, went into the break with a league-worst 37-54 record. Eric Hosmer doubled leading off the ninth against Jose Valverde, but was cut down on a close play trying to steal third. That was the second out, then Mike Moustakas flied out.
Both Verlander and Leyland said they thought he was safe until seeing the replay. Then they thought Brandon Inge blocked him off.
Hosmer still thinks he was safe.
“I know I got my hand in there 100 percent,” he said. “You know, it’s a tough call for him, but it’s a shame it’s the last inning and the game ended like that. It was a tough way to lose.”
The Tigers, winners of four of their last five, moved a half-game ahead of Cleveland, which lost to Toronto 7-1.
“That doesn’t really mean anything,” Leyland said. “That means we’ve played a half a game better than somebody else the first half. This is going to be up for grabs. The Twins and White Sox are right there. Cleveland’s right there. It’s better than being down, behind. But I’m proud of the guys. Unbelievable effort. Guys are tired.”
Jeff Francis (3-10) took the loss even though he had one of the his best outings of the season, going six-plus innings and surrendering two runs on just four hits, with one walk and six strikeouts, matching his season high.
“There’s been a lot of games we could have won and haven’t,” said Francis. “But you know, you put it behind you. We still have a half to go to turn things around, make some adjustments and play better baseball.”
Verlander lost the shutout in the eighth when Alcides Escobar singled, went to third on Chris Getz’s single and scored with two outs when Inge threw high to first on Alex Gordon’s slow roller to third. Joaquin Benoit relieved and struck out Billy Butler with two on and two out.
“That was the biggest out of the game,” said Leyland. “And probably nobody will notice it.”
Valverde earned his 24th straight save. He saved all three of the victories against KC.
It was 95 degrees with a heat index of 105 when the game started and 97, 112 by the sixth inning.