How Justin Verlander’s 2nd no-hitter ‘made people sit up in the buggy’ 10 years ago

Detroit Free Press

J.P Arencibia gets chills talking about May 7, 2011.

“It was him going like, ‘Me versus you, mother-effer. I’m coming at you. You better be ready because I’m not letting this get away,’” the former Toronto Blue Jays catcher recalled.

Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander stood on the mound, staring down at Arencibia with one out in the eighth inning. Verlander had already retired the first 22 Blue Jays that afternoon in Toronto. He would get five more before he was done, joining an elite group with a second no-hitter. ​​​​​

Ten years ago, Verlander’s 173rd career start, a day game at the Rogers Centre, would ignite a season of dominance unseen in a generation, eventually culminating in the 2011 American League Cy Young and MVP awards.

“He was a stud,” then-Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He was a great competitor with great stuff. He figured some things out along the way to control his fastball a little better, and he’s without question a Hall of Famer.”

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But first, there was Arencibia, who came back from an 0-2 count.

“When I got to the 3-2 count, I knew in my head that he wasn’t going to let me get off the hook easy,” Arencibia said. “What I mean by that is, I knew he was going to just fire fastballs at me to make me beat him. That was the case.”

He fouled a fastball to stay alive. He looked up at the scoreboard.

100 mph.

“Dang, this guy’s coming at me,” Arencibia, a 25-year-old appearing in his 33rd career game, whispered.

“Wow, this is incredible,” home plate umpire Jerry Meals thought to himself. “He keeps fouling this shit off.”

For the 12th and final pitch, catcher Alex Avila signaled with his hand: Throw me a fastball. He positioned his glove on the outside edge of the strike zone.

Arencibia did not swing at Verlander’s next 100 mph offering. It was a ball, by about an inch or two. Just outside, for ball four and an end to Verlander’s perfection. There’s no debate about the call to break up his perfect game, though.

“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind, truthfully,” Meals said. “It was just a hair too far off. I just couldn’t do it there. To me, it was a ball, plain and simple. He just missed.”

“I remember it being just a little bit off the plate,” Avila said.

“I knew it was a ball,” Verlander said after the game.

Arencibia became emotional when discussing how he felt at that moment 10 years ago.

“I felt empty, honestly,” Arencibia said. “It sucks because you don’t want to be the guy who breaks it up with a walk. I know that it’s part of the game and I earned it, but I would’ve rather gotten a hit off him than a walk.

“You feel like you did something wrong, which I know I did nothing wrong. But it was like, dang, I just hate that it was me that walked to break that up. It was a weird feeling.”

 

Still, Verlander had work to do, though the next batter, Edwin Encarnacion, had a slightly less epic plate appearance. Encarnacion grounded to short, on Verlander’s third pitch of the at-bat, to end the eighth.

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A perfect ninth inning  — 10 pitches needed, and only four to the first two batters — completed Verlander’s second career no-hitter. His first no-hitter — June 12, 2007, against the Milwaukee Brewers — could be described as an introduction to greatness. This one cemented his status as one of the best — if not the best — pitcher in the major leagues. He outmuscled you, outsmarted you and picked apart your weaknesses.

“This could very easily be the game that turns his career from an outstanding pitcher to the next level,” Leyland said afterward. Verlander entered the day with a 2-3 record and a 3.75 ERA . After the no-no, he went on a 21-2 tear with a 2.18 ERA, to finish 2011 at 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 251 innings.

In addition to the 2006 Rookie of the Year Award, and the 2011 Cy Young and MVP nods, Verlander now owns a surplus of accomplishments, achieved with the Tigers (2005-17) and Houston Astros (2017-20): Another Cy Young (in 2019), eight All-Star nods (including a start in 2012), the 2017 ALCS MVP award and a 2017 World Series championship ring.

Leyland laughed, 10 years later, as he reflected on his prediction.

“I do think that was a huge day for him,” Leyland said. “It just upped his confidence level. He was so dominating. I mean, he had really taken off already, as far as being a really good pitcher and probably a future Hall of Famer.

“But this kind of really made people sit up in the buggy and say, ‘Man, this guy is really, really something special.’ And he is. He’s proven that. I feel very fortunate that I was there to see that.”

Going for the no-hitter

Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero, himself a future All-Star in 2011, remembers showing up at the ballpark on that May afternoon praying for his offense to provide him one run against Verlander.

“Kind of going into that start knowing it’s going to be a tough day,” Romero said. “For me, it was an early day. I just remember seeing from the locker room what was unfolding in front of our eyes.”

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The Tigers scored three runs in the third, and then Jhonny Peralta and Avila homered in the fourth to snag a 6-0 lead and chase Romero en route to an eventual 9-0 victory. By giving Verlander a lead, they made it his game to pace.

Around the sixth inning, Avila and Verlander realized something special was happening.

“So, you kind of go for it,” Avila said.

They treated the last three innings like a one-run game, chasing strikeouts and reaching 101 mph on the radar gun. David Cooper popped out on the first pitch of the ninth inning, to second baseman Scott Sizemore for the first out. John McDonald followed with a grounder to Sizemore (on the third pitch) for the second out.

“I laughed as it was hit,” Sizemore said. “Justin almost falls off the mound and tries to do something like a diving save to knock it down. It’s fairly routine for me, but I know he was just trying to do whatever he could to keep it in front of him.”

It was over six pitches later: Verlander had struck out Rajai Davis (his future Tigers teammate for two seasons) swinging on a 2-2 pitch to etch his name in the history books. He became the 30th pitcher — and only the second Tiger — to toss multiple no-hitters.

He’d join an even more exclusive club a little over eight years later: In his third season with the Astros, Verlander became the sixth pitcher in MLB history with three no-hitters.

That’s how good he is.

Just ask the Blue Jays. The franchise was his victim for no-no No. 3 on Sept. 1, 2019.

‘It was unfair’

Back in 2011, Romero was convinced by the seventh inning.

“Woah, woah. I think we’re going to witness history here today,” he told some of the relief pitchers in the clubhouse. Following Arencibia’s walk, they started screaming, “Hey, he’s throwing a no-hitter!” It was a failed attempt to jinx Verlander’s dominance.

Verlander threw 108 pitches, 74 for strikes, against the Blue Jays that day in Toronto.

“To have a no-hitter, it’s pretty damn hard,” Romero said. “He knows he owns the mound when he’s out there. You just saw his stuff get better and sharper. He starts feeding off that adrenaline. He’s a horse. He’s an absolute horse.”

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He didn’t do it alone, of course; the defense did plenty of work, Verlander included.

In the fifth inning, Encarnacion smashed a line drive off Verlander’s right forearm. The ball ricocheted toward the third-base line. Verlander darted toward the ball, picked it up with his bare hand and fired it to first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who scooped it out of the dirt for the third out.

“I was more worried about Verlander being hurt than anything else,” Leyland said.

Cabrera made a leaping catch on a line drive by Davis for the final out in the sixth inning. For the first out in the seventh, Peralta crouched to one knee and made a clean back-handed pick at shortstop on a one-hopper from Yunel Escobar.

“Jhonny Peralta was one of the best shortstops we’ve had in Detroit since Alan Trammell,” Leyland said. “Nobody will ever give him credit. He didn’t have the greatest range, but he never missed anything and threw it to the same spot to the first baseman every time. I wanted the ball hit to him as much as anybody I’ve ever had. That’s how good he was.”

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With two outs in the seventh, Juan Rivera became the first Blue Jay to make it to a three-ball count. He chopped a comebacker at Verlander, who made a sharp over-the-head snag and tossed underhand to first base.

That’s about when Verlander turned up the heat.

“I will never forget that game because, in the beginning, he was just cruising at 94-96 (mph),” Arencibia said. “When he smelled that he had a perfect game going, the rest of the game, he was like 97-100 mph, then eclipsing 100. It was unfair.”

Mixing speeds, finding slider

Verlander didn’t have the best feel for his curveball, so he relied heavily on his slider and changeup, along with his fastball, to keep Toronto’s batters guessing.

The slider clicked, so he used it often. He didn’t exhaust his arm with overpowering fastballs early on, throwing 92-93 mph by design. He worked quickly and only recorded a single strikeout in the first, third and fourth innings, prior to the final out.

“Going into that year, we talked about pitching deeper into games,” Avila said. “Leading up to that, he struck out a lot of guys but had a lot of foul balls. That would drive his pitch count up. He was a good pitcher, obviously, and one of the better ones in the game because of his stuff, but he was always around that 100-pitch mark after five innings.”

Against the Blue Jays, Verlander changed speeds with his fastball. He saved the 97-100 mph offerings for when he needed them — such as Arencibia’s at-bat — and didn’t shy away from contact.

“It kind of opened up another level for him,” Avila said.

“Justin had an idea what it was all about,” Leyland said. “For all those years I had him, he always had the ability, and figured it out a little bit later on, to control his effort. Not that he wasn’t trying, but I’m talking about effort physically, where he had some stuff left for late in the game.”

A night to remember

Following the game, Verlander invited Avila, pitchers Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer (themselves future Cy Young winners) and utility player Don Kelly to dinner at Barberian’s Steak House in Toronto to celebrate over steak, wine and cigars.

“It was just a great moment,” Avila said. “Something I’ll never forget.”

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Verlander later bought Avila a Ulysse Nardin watch for catching his no-hitter. “It’s a very nice watch,” Avila said. “I’m sure it cost him a little bit of money.” He still wears the timepiece and often reads the back.

His close friend had the watch engraved.

“That season, for me, is one of the best seasons I’ve seen for a pitcher,” Avila said. “To be behind the plate for every single start but one was incredible. Justin and I are really great friends, and our time in Detroit was really special. Both of us had a great time there.

“The one thing we both regret is not actually going all the way and winning a World Series, but the time we had there was some of the best moments in both of our careers. Something we’ll never forget. It was incredible.”

Of course, the moment wasn’t quite over.

The next day, Verlander stood in the dugout and locked eyes with Arencibia as he stepped into the batter’s box — this time in his 34th career game — for his first at-bat of the day. Verlander made a hand gesture and spoke: “Swing the bat.”

“I actually have a jersey that’s signed by him,” Arencibia said. “It reads, ‘Swing the bat. No-hitter.’ I think that’s a pretty cool thing to have after that.”

 

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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