As erratic as the Detroit Tigers have looked at times this season, when Justin Verlander takes the mound, they seem like World Series contenders.
Verlander allowed one run over 7 2-3 innings to become baseball's first 18-game winner, and the first-place Tigers breezed to an easy 7-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night. Verlander labored through a 29-pitch first inning but settled down after that, allowing seven hits in another impressive outing.
"Every win's important for us right now," the Detroit ace said.
Detroit extended its lead in the AL Central to three games over the Cleveland Indians, who lost in 14 innings early Wednesday morning.
The Tigers had lost two in a row coming into the game, and their last eight wins had been by one run, but there wasn't much to sweat out on this night — especially with Verlander on the mound.
"He's a tough cookie. That's why he's about to win the Cy Young," Minnesota outfielder Ben Revere said. "When he's going like that, with that lineup, you don't have a chance. You have to figure on scoring five or six runs to beat them — tonight, it would have been eight — and that's not going to happen against him."
Verlander (18-5) struck out eight to surpass 200 on the year, walked one and lowered his ERA to 2.31.
"That sort of stuff's for the end of the season to look back at," Verlander said. "Not right now. Right now it's a time to focus on my next start — or get ready tomorrow for us to go out there and win another baseball game."
Miguel Cabrera drove in three runs for the Tigers, and Ramon Santiago hit his third home run of the season, a solo shot in the sixth.
Nick Blackburn (7-10) allowed five runs and 11 hits in 4 2-3 innings.
Minnesota slugger Jim Thome was out of the starting lineup Tuesday, one night after hitting two home runs to reach 600 for his career. He did pinch-hit with two outs in the ninth, drawing a standing ovation from the Detroit crowd. That reception then morphed almost seamlessly into a celebration when Thome struck out to end the game.
Thome's teammates had little success against Verlander. The Twins put two men on in the first, but Justin Morneau hit a popup and Jason Kubel struck out to end the threat.
Verlander's 200th strikeout of the season came in the sixth, when Morneau watched a breaking ball drop toward the outside corner, then slowly walked back to the dugout looking like he was about to roll his eyes.
"He pitched great," Cabrera said. "Every time he goes out there, you can see he always goes seven innings."
Verlander struck out two more Twins to start the seventh and another two in the eighth, getting former MVP Joe Mauer swinging on a breaking ball that dropped wickedly as it reached the plate. Morneau finally managed an RBI single that inning, chasing Verlander from the game. The tall right-hander received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd before he even left the mound, and he acknowledged the fans on his way to the dugout with a wave of his left hand.
Cabrera opened the scoring with a two-run single in the third, and the Tigers added three more runs in the fifth on RBI singles by Victor Martinez, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta.
Avila and Austin Jackson both reached base four times for the Tigers. Brennan Boesch scored three runs.
Santiago led off the bottom of the sixth with a homer that made it 6-0, and Cabrera, who extended his hitting streak to 14 games, added an RBI single.
NOTES: Verlander threw 121 pitches. ... Minnesota SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka turned a slick double play in the eighth, fielding Boesch's grounder up the middle, sweeping his right leg across second base as he ran by, then throwing to first. ... Detroit's Delmon Young and Cabrera were thrown out at second in back-to-back at-bats in the sixth, trying to stretch singles into doubles. ... Minnesota OF Denard Span, who has been recovering from a concussion, did not play. ... The teams play Wednesday night in the rubber game of the three-game series. Detroit's Brad Penny (8-9) takes the mound against Minnesota's Carl Pavano (6-9). ... The Tigers are 9-2 against the Twins this season.