It will be ace vs. ace at Tropicana Field tonight when reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander faces 2010 Cy Young runner-up David Price in the second test of a four-game set between the Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Rays.
Verlander, the second overall pick by the Tigers in 2004, had won 83 games in 165 big-league appearances before last season, when he broke out with an eye- popping 24-5 record to go along with a stingy 2.40 earned run average across 251 innings of work.
The Virginia native completed four games and tossed two shutouts - including a no-hitter - in helping Detroit to a 15-game edge in the AL's Central Division and a playoff berth.
He began this season with five wins in his initial six decisions, then dropped three straight decisions in four starts between May 24 and June 9 while his 2012 ERA rose from 2.14 to 2.69.
He ended the skid and started what's become a three-start win streak with a 5-3 defeat of the Chicago Cubs on June 14 and has since followed with defeats of St. Louis and Pittsburgh during the Tigers' annual interleague swing.
In the three victories, Verlander has allowed 15 hits and seven runs in 24 innings, again lowering his ERA to 2.52.
He dropped a 4-2 verdict to the Rays in Detroit on April 11, but is 6-2 against them in 11 career meetings with an opposition batting average of .229.
Verlander will be opposed by the 26-year-old Price, a Nashville native who was the first overall selection by the Rays in 2007.
The 6-foot-6 southpaw pitched in relief for Tampa Bay during its run to the 2008 World Series, then settled into a starting role the following spring and was 10-7 with a 4.42 ERA in 23 starts that season.
He blossomed the following year, however, winning 19 of 25 decisions while posting a 2,72 ERA across a career-high 208 2/3 innings, finishing second in the Cy Young voting to Seattle's Felix Hernandez.
Price slumped to 12-13 in his third full season as a starter last year, but has bounced back for 10 wins in 14 decisions through the initial portion of 2012, including wins in his last two starts against Philadelphia and Washington.
In those victories, he's combined to allow 10 hits and five runs in 14 innings with 12 strikeouts.
Price is 3-1 in six career meetings with the Tigers.
In Thursday's opener, Miguel Cabrera went 4-for-5 with a home run and two RBI as the Tigers took a 5-2 win.
Austin Jackson also was 4-for-5 with a run scored and Delmon Young had two hits and an RBI for the Tigers, who had dropped four of six coming in. Max Scherzer (7-5) gave up two runs on four hits with two walks and seven strikeouts over six-plus innings.
"Any time you can take the opener and get the momentum going into the series, it's a good thing," Jackson said. "We have four games against a good team with great pitching, so this is big."
Brooks Conrad had two hits and a run scored while Elliot Johnson also had two hits and drove in a run for the Rays, who have lost four straight. James Shields (7-5) yielded four runs on 14 hits over 7 2/3 innings in the loss.
"They found every single hole you could possibly find today," Shields said. "There was nothing I could do about it, they had my number tonight."
The Tigers lead the all-time series between the teams, 55-52, and won six of seven last season and two of three in a series earlier this season at Comerica Park. The Rays' only win against them in 2012 came from Shields.