MINNEAPOLIS -- Justin Verlander threw much better Saturday than in his last start 12 days ago in Pittsburgh, when shoulder soreness caused him to have what he termed the worst stuff of his career.
He gave up four runs, all during the second and third innings, then blanked Minnesota for his final 2 2/3 innings. He exited with a one-run lead and became the winning pitcher when the Tigers prevailed, 8-6, for a split of a day-night doubleheader at Target Field.
The Tigers fell a season-high three games behind Kansas City by dropping the opener, 12-4. The margin stayed at three games as the first-place Royals won yet again Saturday, 6-3 at Texas.
Verlander (11-11) got back to .500 in a season in which he has reworked his mechanics and worked through the shoulder pain. He cranked his fastball as high as 94-95 mph when in trouble Saturday.
Verlander capped a 1-2-3 first when he struck out Joe Mauer swinging on three pitches: 91 mph called, 91 mph swinging, 85 mph swinging.
The Twins had four baserunners in the second. Kennys Vargas led off with a single but was erased in a line-drive double play. On Verlander's next two pitches, Trevor Plouffe drilled a 92 mph fastball for a double and Kurt Suzuki lined a 92 mph fastball to center to score Plouffe to tie the score at 1.
Verlander walked Eduardo Escobar. He threw No. 9 hitter Jordan Schafer a pair of 95 mph fastballs -- his top velocity of the night so far -- before he struck him out swinging on a 93 m.p.h. fastball.
In the third, for the second straight inning, the Tigers gave Verlander a one-run lead, and he couldn't hold it. Mauer's double on an 0-2 pitch tied the score and put runners at second and third with none out.
Verlander struck out the next two hitters: Vargas on a 79 mph pitch and Oswaldo Arcia on a 94 mph fastball upstairs. But he left an 87 mph pitch to Plouffe in the middle of the strike zone with two out, and Plouffe pulled a line-drive double into the leftfield corner for two runs and a 4-2 lead.
In the fourth, Danny Santana sent a two-out triple to right-center. Verlander retired Brian Dozier on a foul pop.
The Tigers pulled within 4-3 in the fifth. Verlander retired Mauer and Vargas on a combined three pitches to open the bottom of the inning, then got Arcia to fly out on a full count. He had retired seven of eight since Plouffe's go-ahead double, and he was at 84 pitches through five innings.
Eugenio Suarez's two-run single off Twins starter Trevor May gave Verlander a 5-4 lead in the sixth. It was the third time the Tigers had provided him with a one-run lead; the first two times, the Twins had tied the score in the bottom of the inning.
They bid for another tie when Plouffe led off the sixth with a single and went to second on Verlander's errant one-out pickoff throw. (Plouffe had been 4-for-28 lifetime off Verlander until he went 3-for-3 against him in this game.) Verlander struck out Escobar on a 92 m.p.h. fastball, but walked Schafer. That concluded his evening at 105 pitches.
Left-hander Blaine Hardy relieved to face the switch-hitting Santana. Hardy retired him on a fly to center, and Verlander remained in line for the win.
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