DETROIT — When the last batter swung and missed, giving Justin Verlander his 14th strikeout of the night, the tall righthander finally allowed himself to step out of character.
Before heading to the dugout, he pumped his right fist emphatically in a rare show of emotion for Detroit’s hard-throwing ace during a splendid first half of the season.
Verlander has been among the American League’s elite for most of his career, but this year has taken another step forward. He threw his second career no-hitter in May, the start of a sensational stretch that has vaulted him into the discussion for the Cy Young Award as the season nears its midway point.
Verlander has made the dazzling look routine, taking the mound with a calmness he says helps his control.
“I feel like I’m learning how to pitch better — learning how to use my stuff a little bit better,” Verlander said. “I feel like my fastball control this year has been a lot better than years pervious, and I think that has a lot to do with the mentality that I’ve been taking out there — just nice and methodical, nice and easy the first few innings and establishing a rhythm.”
On Saturday, the Arizona Diamondbacks showed up at Comerica Park for an interleague game and performed about as expected for a team that doesn’t see Verlander much. He allowed four hits in eight scoreless innings, striking out that career-high 14.
He finished his outing with a flourish, allowing a walk and a double in the eighth before striking out the last three hitters to hold the Diamondbacks without a run.
“He throws fastball, curve, slider, change-up and they are all great pitches. We had heard that he would still be throwing hard late in the game, and he was just as tough in the eighth inning as he was in the first,” Arizona’s Ryan Roberts said. “We’ve faced a lot of great pitchers this season, but he’s really up there.”
Verlander’s no-hitter came May 7 at Toronto. He was within one eighth-inning walk — on a full count — of a perfect game. As tension mounted in the ninth, Verlander cracked a smile, and after the final out, he was thrilled but not overly demonstrative.
It might not have been his best start of the season.
In his next outing, Verlander reached the sixth inning before allowing a hit. Earlier this month, he took a no-hitter into the eighth before settling for a two-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts.
In his last four starts, Verlander has allowed two runs in 34 innings. He’s struck out 41 and walked three. On the season, he’s 10-3 with a 2.38 ERA, averaging nearly a strikeout an inning and holding opponents to a .178 average.
“I think he’s gradually learning to calm down a little bit more and not get quite as hyper — not overthrow as much, not get quite as antsy in some situations,” manager Jim Leyland said.
The 6-foot-5 Verlander works to keep his shoulder strong, and his relaxed demeanor can’t hurt when he’s trying to pitch deep into games.
He’s averaged 115 pitches per start this season and can reach high numbers on the radar gun no matter the inning. On Saturday, he was clocked at 100 mph on the stadium scoreboard — on his 116th pitch.
That endurance is one area in which Verlander has grown quite a bit since winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2006.
“After about 60 or 70 pitches, I would feel like my arm was going to fall off,” he said. “I had never been through a full major league season. I didn’t know what it would take. That was a real wake-up call. I think I got really lucky that I didn’t get hurt.”
Verlander has started at least 30 games in every full season with the Tigers, and in February 2010, they gave him an $80 million, five-year contract.
When Verlander was a rookie, the Tigers reached the World Series, although by that point, he wasn’t at his best. His postseason performance is still in the back of his mind — he lost both his starts and had a 5.82 ERA in the playoffs.
Detroit hasn’t reached the postseason since. If the Tigers make it back this year, Verlander hopes to be fresh and ready.
“It’d be nice to feel good,” he said. “Going back to that point in time is one reason I work so hard.”
Verlander’s efforts are certainly paying off, and if he keeps this up, he could be in line for more honors in the coming months. He’s finished as high as third in the Cy Young voting — in 2009— but never won the award. He’s back among the front-runners now, and he won’t shy from the speculation.
“If I’m in that conversation, that means I’m doing what I need to do for this team,” he said. “Obviously, we’re battling for first place here. If I’m in that conversation now or I win it at the end of the year, that means I’ve done what I wanted to do, which is win games, pitch well, and hopefully pitch us into first place.”