There was blood in the water, and Justin Verlander was circling, the Detroit Tigers right-hander stalking his prey before moving in for the kill Wednesday night.
“After he was smelling the no-hitter in the fifth or sixth inning, he started throwing 97-98 mph,” Angels slugger Albert Pujols said. “So he had a lot in his tank.”
Verlander’s fastball sat in the 93-mph range for the first four or five innings in Comerica Park, but he cranked it up to 96 mph for a strikeout of Ryan Jackson to end the sixth.
Verlander struck out the side in the seventh, Kole Calhoun with a 96-mph fastball, Mike Trout looking at a full-count, 83-mph curve on the outside corner, and Pujols with a 95-mph fastball. He dialed it up to 97 mph during a C.J. Cron at-bat that ended with a weak grounder to second to end the eighth.
But three outs away from becoming only the sixth pitcher in baseball history to throw three no-hitters, an exclusive club that includes Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Cy Young and Bob Feller, Verlander left one of those blazing fastballs, a 97-mph offering to weak-hitting catcher Chris Iannetta, in a bad spot.
Iannetta, batting .188 on the season and mired in a six-for-54 slump, led off the ninth inning with a double that kicked up chalk on the left-field line, and Verlander had to settle for a one-hitter and his seventh career shutout in a 5-0 victory over the Angels.
“I threw what I wanted — I just didn’t locate it,” Verlander said. “It was the only ball all night that I threw over the heart of the plate. Everything that had been on the plate was up, and that one just kind of ran back on me and over the middle, and he hit it.”
Verlander, who struck out nine and walked two, missed the first 21/2 months of this season because of a right triceps strain. He entered Wednesday with a 1-6 record and 3.86 earned-run average but had given up only one earned run in 20 innings of his previous three starts, striking out 22 and walking six.
“That’s the best stuff we’ve seen from him in two years,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “There is no doubt he was pitching well, and as the game went on, he was getting stronger. … He always has that extra gear, where he’ll open up that throttle later in the game.”
Verlander, 32, faced 28 batters, one over the minimum 27, because both of the batters he walked, Kaleb Cowart in the third and David Murphy in the eighth, were wiped out on double plays. He mixed his fastball with a curve, slider, changeup and cut fastball, and of his 112 pitches, 74 were strikes.
“There’s always an amount of pride you take in breaking up a no-hitter, but it’s a game in which we really didn’t give ourselves a chance,” Scioscia said. “Verlander was really tough. We didn’t get many good looks at him.”
If not for some quick video assessment by assistant hitting coach Paul Sorrento and reserve outfielder Shane Victorino, the Angels might have been no-hit for the first time since Minnesota Twins left-hander Eric Milton blanked them in 1999.
After Iannetta popped out to second to lead off the sixth, Sorrento and Victorino watched some tape of Iannetta “from before 2011, when I was hitting really well,” Iannetta said. “They’re like, ‘Your hands are high, you had a leg kick. Go back to doing that.’”
Is that the kind of adjustment Iannetta normally would make in the middle of the game?
“What’s the worst that can happen? I make an out?” he said. “I did it, I felt good, I felt a lot freer. I was able to get to a fastball that I hadn’t been able to get to the last couple weeks. It felt good, see we’ll see what happens.”
Right-hander Matt Shoemaker (5-9, 4.76 ERA) will oppose Detroit left-hander Randy Wolf (0-1, 3.86 ERA) at Comerica Park on Thursday at 10 a.m. PDT. TV: FS West; Radio: 830.