DETROIT (AP) - In many ways, Justin Verlander is the perfect symbol of an uncertain future for the Detroit Tigers.
When he spent more than two months on the disabled list and then struggled in his first few starts of 2015, it looked as if Verlander’s best days were long behind him - a bad sign for Detroit, considering his exorbitant contract that lasts through at least 2019.
But over the past month, the 32-year-old right-hander has put together a string of impressive starts, culminating in Wednesday night’s one-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels.
Now, the future suddenly looks a bit more promising for Verlander. And what a boost that would be for the Tigers as they try to rebound from what’s been a frustrating season so far.
“I think the last month’s really been encouraging for me,” Verlander said after Wednesday’s gem. “This just reaffirms that.”
Verlander has thrown two no-hitters, in 2007 and 2011. Wednesday’s bid ended when Chris Iannetta led off the ninth inning with a double, but Verlander finished the shutout for his first complete game since 2012.
“It isn’t like it’s ever easy to take one into the ninth, but this one means a little more because all the other times, I had never really been through any hard times in my career,” Verlander said. “That’s why it meant so much to me when the fans really got into it in the sixth (inning). I know they’ve wanted me to get back and they’ve always supported me.”
Verlander’s career peaked in 2011 when he won the American League MVP and Cy Young Award. He was terrific again in 2012, and before the 2013 season, Verlander signed a new contract with the Tigers paying him $180 million over seven seasons.
He wasn’t quite as dominant that year, but he was outstanding in the postseason. Then came 2014: Although the Tigers won their fourth straight AL Central title, Verlander went 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA and only 159 strikeouts.
The news was even worse at the start of 2015. A triceps problem kept him out until mid-June, and after an ugly start against Baltimore on July 19, Verlander had a 6.62 ERA.
Since then, however, he’s been terrific. Although wins have still been hard to come by, he’s posted a 1.38 ERA in his past seven starts, and although Verlander isn’t likely to hit triple digits on the radar gun anymore, his fastball still reaches the mid-to-high 90s - plenty effective when he’s controlling it well.
On Wednesday, he faced 28 hitters - one over the minimum.
“That’s Justin Verlander,” catcher James McCann said. “He’s AL MVP, Cy Young Award winner. He’s worked his tail off to get back to what he is right now.”
The Tigers are still below .500. Their streak of division titles is almost certain to end, and a wild card is also pretty unlikely.
They traded stars David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at the deadline for young pitchers they hope can help them extend their window of opportunity to win their first World Series since 1984.
Verlander remains a huge part of Detroit’s future. The Tigers face an important offseason, and both the starting rotation and the bullpen will likely be priorities.
It’s hard to say how quickly the young pitchers acquired in those deadline deals will develop, so right now, the only established starters in line for rotation spots in 2016 are Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.
That means the Tigers could really use this version of Verlander, or something close to it. He won’t flirt with a no-hitter every night, but the past month or so has given Detroit a reason for optimism - during a season when there’s been precious little of that.
“I couldn’t be happier,” McCann said. “I’m extremely proud of how hard he’s worked. I’ve seen how hard he’s worked. I’m understanding what he’s got to do to get back to elite status. He’s proven he’s going to find a way to get it done, and that’s what he’s been doing.”
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