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Published: Monday, 7/14/2008

Verlander rescues skidding Tigers

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
ABOVE: The Tigers' Justin Verlander fanned eight and allowed four hits to defeat Minnesota yesterday at Comerica Park.
ABOVE: The Tigers' Justin Verlander fanned eight and allowed four hits to defeat Minnesota yesterday at Comerica Park.
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DETROIT - If there can be such a thing - a must-win game in July - this was it.

On the heels of three straight one-run losses to a division rival. The All-Star break on their doorstep. Doubt beginning to mount about the possibility of a playoff run.

Tough circumstances for a sunny Sunday in July, but the Tigers passed the test.

Justin Verlander showed why he's the ace of Detroit's pitching staff, Clete Thomas smacked his first major league homer and the Tigers outlasted the Minnesota Twins 4-2.

At 47-47, Detroit is 7 games behind first-place Chicago in the American League Central and trails the Twins by 5 1/2 games for second. With 68 games to go, the Tigers never thought they'd be in this spot when a season so full of promise began on March 31.

Clete Thomas, right, hit his first major league home run, a tworun-shot, and is congratulated by Marcus Thames. Clete Thomas, right, hit his first major league home run, a tworun-shot, and is congratulated by Marcus Thames.
PAUL SANCYA / AP Enlarge

But for those needing a glimmer of hope - and yesterday's win wasn't enough for you - hear this from manager Jim Leyland:

"I really believe we have a chance."

The Twins punched the Tigers in the gut the first three games of this series, scratching out single-run victories. Not that Detroit's pitching was all that bad in those games, but it still needed Verlander to pitch the way one pitches when a losing streak must end.

Verlander (7-9) went seven innings, allowing both of the Twins' runs on four hits and eight strikeouts. He's got a 2.54 ERA in his last seven starts and is riding a five-game winning streak.

The Twins scored twice in the fourth thanks to Justin Morneau's bloop double down the left-field line that put runners on second and third with one out. Joe Mauer scored on a wild pitch and Morneau crossed home on Brendan Harris' single.

Verlander recovered and allowed only one baserunner the rest of the way.

"It's a big win for us, obviously," Verlander said. "Going into the break and having lost the first three games, a couple really close ones we could've pulled out, it would've been really demoralizing for us if we'd have gone into the break having lost four. But we got the job done today."

Joel Zumaya pitched around two walks (one intentional, one not so intentional) in the eighth, and Todd Jones worked a perfect ninth for his 318th-career save - tying former Twin Rick Aguilera for 14th on the all-time list.

The Tigers took a 2-0 lead on Thomas' first big-league homer - a two-run shot to left off Minnesota starter Nick Blackburn. Thomas, a former Mud Hen who had gone his first 112 at-bats in the majors without a homer, punished one 370 feet to right field.

An unopened bottle of champagne sat at his locker after the game.

"I'll probably save it," Thomas said of the bottle of bubbly. "When I hit it, I knew it was gone. It was great because I was able to watch it and see it clear the fence."

Up 3-2 in the eighth, another former Hen and Tigers rookie - Matt Joyce - delivered again. He crushed his fourth homer in five games, this time to straightaway center, which is 420 feet from home plate.

"That one had a different sound to it," Leyland said.

Truly sending the Tigers to the All-Star break in style, Joyce got a late jump on Mike Lamb's fly ball to right with two outs in the ninth and had to race in and make a diving catch.

But he caught it.

Instead of three days of doom and gloom waiting for the season to resume, the Tigers entered the break thinking positively about what's to come.

"What I'd like to do is get the deficit down somewhere around three games by September," Leyland said. "If we could do that I'd really be happy because then you're playing for something."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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