DETROIT -- Three outs away from a two-walk no-hitter isn't good enough. But it's pretty darn close. Justin Verlander faced one batter over the minimum. That batter cost him the third no-hitter of his career. A baseball that was hit only inches from being foul followed by a word said on the mound not repeatable for print or over a broadcast.
"Heartbreaking," was how catcher James McCann described seeing the white dust kick up from the foul line when Verlander's 97 mph fastball fell in for a hit. The crowd of 31,938 groaned and Verlander slumped backwards as he saw his first regular season no-hit bid since May 19, 2012 evaporate into the night. It felt like "having your heart ripped out."
Emotions ran wild on the field, the dugout, the seats, and wherever Detroit Tigers fans had found a place to watch potential history. The day after the team fell to last place in the division, and in the midst of a five-game losing skid, fans were still there. Because Verlander was on the mound, and for his last six starts had been the Verlander of Olde. On a balmy mid-60 degree night, Verlander may have lost his no-hitter but not the support of fans.
"I was feeling it for different reasons," Verlander said. "In the past, obviously -- not that it was ever easy -- I hadn't been through a tough time in my career yet. This has a special meaning because of the way the fans were treating me and reacting. I know they've wanted to see me back as bad as I have, and from the sixth inning on, they were unbelievable. They gave me goosebumps coming off the mound in the seventh because of the way they were reacting. It was nice to hear."
Neither Verlander nor McCann would have chosen another pitch to throw to Chris Iannetta. The heat was there. Iannetta was hitless with a strikeout and in the middle of a 6-for-52 slump entering Wednesday night's game. That 2-2 pitch was the only pitch that Verlander didn't hit his spot on, and the Angels catcher didn't miss. But even with the no-hitter lost, Verlander gave a performance that the team hadn't seen in over two years. Not like that.
Perhaps Verlander's performance on the mound has been overlooked at times due to the team's record. Some doubted that he could return to his dominant form. Ignoring that wasn't easy for Verlander. But he didn't just keep the Angels off balance, he was lights-out. He got better as the game wore on and topped 97 mph on several occasions. Not many balls made it to the outfield.
"It's crazy. It was a lot of fun," Miguel Cabrera said as he looked at Verlander's locker with a smile. "You love that kind of game, like that. You appreciate it. It's impressive."
Cabrera, along with J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos, each hit a home run. The former came as two-run home runs and gave the Tigers a 5-0 lead -- also something Verlander hadn't had in some time. Run support. With Verlander mixing his pitches so well, and both he and McCann on the same page the entire night, it wasn't needed but appreciated.
In the dugout, Verlander remained the same and no one bothered him -- which is really no different in any of his starts. But as a game wore on, it became nerve-wracking for Verlander's teammates. McCann spoke of how he began to second-guess his pitch calling on a couple of occasions before pushing them out of his mind. No one on the team was exempt from feeling nervous. Including Tigers manager Brad Ausmus.
"I don't know what inning it was, but I started chewing barbecue seeds and standing in the same spot when he took the mound," Ausmus said. "It was probably about the fourth or fifth inning. I can't really feel my tongue right now, but I guess it was worth it."
To say that the adrenaline was there would be an understatement. It was Verlander's first shutout since his postseason dominance in Game 5 of the 2013 American League Division Series against the Oakland Athletics. He's had some complete games since then but not a shutout, and getting that third no-hitter has proven to be difficult. But then, no-hitters generally are.
If Verlander had accomplished what he nearly did, he would have become the fourth pitcher since 1901 with three-or-more no-hitters, joining Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Feller. That just leaves the next start. Or the one after that. Or whenever Verlander's next no-hitter happens to take place.
Baseball likes to screw you over just when you think you've got the upper hand. A game of heartbreak and frustration 70 percent of the time. Verlander dominated the Angels on Wednesday night. He threw mostly fastballs but didn't hesitate to mix in his slider, curveball, and even an occasional changeup when needed. He was almost there. But almost there isn't good enough. So, that just leaves next time.
"I think when you get to three, the number of guys that've done it shrinks significantly," Verlander remarked. "It'd be nice to be in that group, especially some of the names in there. I think Nolan Ryan had some ridiculous amount of no-hitters broken up in the ninth inning. It happens.
"That's the toughest part of a no-hitter is getting through that last inning. How many times have you seen guys break it up in the ninth? It happens."