Struggling Tigers Extend Division Lead

Friday, September 8th 2006, 6:29 am
By: News On 6

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Justin Verlander didn't look like a rookie in the thick of a pennant race. Despite their recent struggles, the Detroit Tigers kept their cool, too. Having lost 19 of their last 28 games, the Tigers reached this critical four-game series at Minnesota with a chance to fall out of sole possession of first place in the AL Central for the first time since May 20. But that won't happen this weekend, thanks to the rookie right-hander.

Verlander gave up one run in seven innings on Thursday in a 7-2 victory over the second-place Twins, who trail Detroit in the division by five games.

The Chicago White Sox, 9-1 losers to Cleveland in the day's only other AL game, are a half-game behind Minnesota, which grounded into three double plays against Verlander (16-7) and also had a runner picked off first base.

``It gives us a little momentum, but we've just got to take it one game at a time,'' said Marcus Thames, who hit a two-run homer against Scott Baker in the second. ``Those guys are tough.''

Jim Leyland has perfected the level head, in his 15th season as a major league manager. Though their once-staggering lead, at 10 games on Aug. 7, has shrunk, the Tigers are following Leyland's example and trying to keep their cool down the stretch.

``I'll panic when my kid flunks math,'' Leyland deadpanned in his raspy voice.

Curtis Granderson hit a tone-setting homer on the third pitch of the night against Baker (4-8), who gave up five runs and nine hits in five innings while striking out two.

Verlander got plenty of support, including a two-run single by Craig Monroe in the fifth and a home run by Ivan Rodriguez in the seventh off Matt Guerrier.

Michael Cuddyer stopped the shutout with his 21st homer in the bottom of that inning, one of eight hits scattered by Verlander, who walked two, struck out five and had his curveball working well.

``He ate us up,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. ``This guy tonight can do that to you. Some of the others we've faced, maybe not. But he was nasty.''

Torii Hunter added an RBI single in the ninth to match Omar Infante's solo shot off Guerrier in the top of the inning, but the Twins have scored more than two runs only twice in their last 11 games.

Luis Castillo was picked off first base after a single to start the fourth. Minnesota put the leadoff man on in the third, fifth and sixth, but Jason Tyner, Hunter and Jason Bartlett each followed with double-play groundouts.

Bartlett's was the biggest, because Castillo and Nick Punto followed with singles. Joe Mauer, clinging to the AL batting lead, grounded out to end that inning. He went 1-for-4 and saw his average drop to .3444, just ahead of the Yankees' Derek Jeter (.3439).

Verlander was given nine days off between starts in early August, and the extra rest has given him strength for September. Four of his five outings last month were shaky, but the rookie right-hander has allowed only one run in 14 innings over his last two appearances.

``I definitely think it was beneficial. Anytime you can get some time in there to rest your arm, it's going to help you,'' Verlander said.

The Twins weren't worried, with 23 games left in the season.

``We're still in good shape,'' Tyner said. ``I think we feel all right. We haven't been playing that great, but luckily neither have the Tigers or White Sox.''

Though Baker held New York's big hitters to two hits and one run in five innings during a 6-1 victory last weekend, he wasn't the guy the Twins would have preferred to pitch in the opener of this critical four-game series.

Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke are still hurt, though, and it's up to Baker, Matt Garza and Boof Bonser _ all rookies _ to hold the rotation together until All-Star Johan Santana throws Sunday.

Baker, whose ERA rose to 6.72, continued to have trouble keeping his pitches down in the strike zone. He allowed nine hits and five runs in five innings, striking out two.

``I want to be at a point where there's no thought process,'' Baker said. ``The harder I try to make that perfect pitch, it's just not happening.''

Indians 9, White Sox 1

Cliff Lee gave up one run in six strong innings and Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez homered off Mark Buehrle to lead visiting Cleveland past slumping Chicago.

The White Sox have lost six of eight and remained one-half game behind Minnesota for the AL wild-card spot. Chicago dropped 5 1/2 games behind Detroit in the AL Central.

The Indians, who have won 13 of 18, generated five runs with two-out hits, including a pair by rookie Ryan Garko. Andy Marte singled, double and tripled for the Indians, who had 17 hits _ 10 of them against Buehrle (12-12).

Lee (12-10), who retired the first 10 batters, gave up five hits.