MINNEAPOLIS — Justin Verlander’s curveball was snapping, Torii Hunter’s bat was clicking and the Detroit Tigers appeared to be creeping ever closer to locking up their third straight AL Central title.
When their bullpen couldn’t hold the lead against Minnesota’s anemic offense, another chance to reduce their magic number went swirling down the drain.
Josmil Pinto hit an RBI single in the 11th inning and the Twins overcame 12 strikeouts by Verlander to beat the Tigers 4-3 on Monday night.
The Tigers led 3-0 in the eighth, but Jose Veras gave up RBI doubles to Eduardo Escobar and pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit. Brian Dozier led off the ninth with a tying homer against previously perfect closer Joaquin Benoit.
Dozier opened the 11th with a single off Luke Putkonen (1-2) and advanced on a wild pitch. Pinto punched a single to right field to give manager Ron Gardenhire his 998th career victory.
Verlander gave up six hits and walked three in six shutout innings for the Tigers, who entered needing two wins — or one victory and a loss by idle Cleveland — to lock up the division.
“Obviously, it’s tough,” Verlander said. “We’re sitting here knocking on the door and every win counts. It was a tough pill to swallow, but that’s the lovely thing about baseball. We come out here tomorrow and we have another day and another crack at a win.”
Anthony Swarzak (3-2) pitched the 11th for the win.
Hunter had two doubles, a single and an RBI for Detroit. Miguel Cabrera had two hits and an RBI while moving gingerly on a sore groin that kept him out of Sunday’s loss to the White Sox.
It was a rare stumble for Benoit, who has stabilized the shaky back end of the bullpen since becoming the full-time closer. He had converted 22 straight save chances this season. But the struggles by Veras caused manager Jim Leyland to go to his closer far earlier than he would have liked, and Benoit came on with one out in the eighth to try for a rare five-out save.
“I don’t even consider that a blown save because you’re asking him to do an awful lot,” Leyland said. “He’s been absolutely fantastic. He’s a very, very outstanding pitcher.”
After three straight underwhelming outings by his lofty standards, Verlander was back to his untouchable self against the overmatched Twins.
With his curveball bending and his slider biting as well as they ever have, Verlander struck out the side in the second and third — and the whiffs kept coming.
“He looked like his old self,” Dozier said. “His breaking ball was really moving and he was punching guys out.”
Five times Verlander got the Twins looking for strike three, four of them with wicked curveballs that froze the hitters. One of them buckled Chris Parmelee’s knees for his 10th strikeout of the game in the fourth inning. Verlander topped 200 strikeouts for the fifth straight year.
“I think I had the best breaking ball I’ve had all year,” Verlander said. “It was really sharp. It was good. I was able to go to it when I wanted to and throw it for strikes.”
The right-hander had been tagged for 10 earned runs in his last three starts, a bothersome little skid as the playoffs approach. He also entered the night with a pedestrian 13-12 record and 3.66 ERA that is ordinary by his standards. Maybe an outing against the meager Twins offense will be enough to get him back in the groove.
It was Verlander’s third double-digit strikeout game of the season, and first since he fanned 13 Pirates on May 27.
Mike Pelfrey gave up one run on six hits with five strikeouts and three walks in six innings for the Twins.
“The math doesn’t change,” Leyland said. “Somehow we’ve got to win two games.”
NOTES: Prince Fielder played in his 500th straight game. ... The Indians open a series against the White Sox in Cleveland today. ... Twins OF Oswaldo Arcia was a late scratch when he bruised his right knee after running into the wall while chasing down a fly ball in batting practice. ... The Twins struck out at least 10 times for the 60th time this season. The previous team high was 26 in 2001. ... Tigers RHP Doug Fister (13-9, 3.71 ERA) will take the mound today against Twins LHP Scott Diamond (6-11, 5.54).