TOLEDO — A street vendor stood at the corner of Huron and Monroe streets Saturday selling orange and blue phiten necklaces — "Just like Justin Verlander wears!" — while fans in No. 35 jerseys crowded the sidewalks and sat in the windows of Pizza Papalis nearby.
This was clearly not going to be just another game at Fifth Third Field.
The Tigers were in Chicago that night in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, their worst stretch since 2005, yet their award-winning righthander went through his warmups 250 mile to the east. The Tigers' loss was Toledo's gain — for a night, anyway.
Verlander was making his second rehab start with the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate after missing the first two months of the season with a lingering triceps injury; his first start came a week ago in Indianapolis. This time, with the Toledo Mud Hens playing just an hour south of Detroit, fans looking for a reason to cheer flowed down I-75 to see for themselves whether their salvation would come.
Must see JV
When Verlander took the mound just after 7 p.m., with the setting sun shining on him while the Columbus Clippers' batter stood in the shade 60 feet away, the seats were filled to beyond capacity and fans stood in every open section beyond the outfield wall. The attendance was later announced at a stadium-best 13,300 -- Toledo's professional baseball record set nearly 50 years ago remains.
"The fans were fantastic," Verander said after the game."They were about as good as I've ever heard. The guys coming from Toledo say the fanbase here is fantastic. Obviously not being far from Detroit helps. The support was awesome."
The Mud Hens lost 6-1, but nobody seemed to mind. Verlander did not disappoint and the true minor league experience was on stage from the start. Rexy the T-Rex delivered the game ball to Verlander, himself wearing a Jurassic Park uniform. Clippers players' photos were replaced on the scoreboard by dinosaurs, Mud Hens shown in safari hats like Sam Neill's character, Alan Grant, wore in the film.
Verlander, like always, was all business as soon as he stepped on the rubber. Controlling his pitches, changing speeds from the high-70s to the low/mid-90s, he spent most of his 5-2/3 innings on the mound toying with overmatched minor league batters. Regardless of the opponent there was no doubt Verlander is ready to return to Detroit. The only question was whether he'd be able to strike out 10 before Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish would him from the game.
And ever the showman and to the loving crowd's approval, Verlander stuck it out for one more batter even when Parrish did come out with his hook. Anyone who's seen him knows it's hard to say no when Verlander asks for one last batter.
The batter won when Verlander grooved a ball down the middle on the sixth pitch to avoid a 10-pitch at-bat and gave up his only run of the night with the decision. He left the mound to a standing ovation, tipping his cap to fans who roared approval for a nine-strikeout, four-hit performance from their star.
Two-hundred-fifty miles to the west, the Tigers were leading the White Sox and already well on their way to a 7-1 clubbing of the losing streak that haunted them.
"I've been a part of some really good teams that went through rough stretches where we didn't play good baseball," Verlander said after his appearance. "I still believe we have a great team. And I think when we turn it around, it's gonna be fun to watch."
And for one night in Toledo, it didn't take much to believe.