‘He’s electric’: Rodriguez shines as Tigers top Verlander, sweep Mets

Detroit News

Detroit — When he was a rookie breaking in with the Oakland Athletics, Tigers manager AJ Hinch faced Dwight Gooden, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. He remembers standing behind the plate a little in awe when Cal Ripken Jr. or Barry Bonds stepped into the batter’s box.

He understands what his players, particularly his younger players, were experiencing these last two days.

“I mean, you can deny it all you want as a manager or a player; you can say it’s just another game,” he said. “But, it’s not.”

The Tigers see pictures of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in their clubhouse every day. Eric Haase, a Livonia native, grew up watching both in their heydays in Detroit. Heck yes, there is extra juice when you get the chance to compete against the greats.

And they certainly rose to the challenge Wednesday night, beating Scherzer. And they rose up again Thursday, beating Verlander in his debut start with the Mets.

The Tigers greeted Verlander with back-to-back home runs in the first inning — by Riley Greene and Javier Báez — and then rode the brilliance of Eduardo Rodriguez to a 2-0 win and a series sweep of the Mets.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 2, Mets 0

“We try to fake it as pros and big-leaguers and we try to keep our own personal vibe,” Hinch said. “But, deep down inside, that little kid in you that watched these guys — like when you see our young players walk in and see Miggy — it’s not normal to be able to have the opportunity to do that.

“You realize exactly where you’re at when you have someone of that magnitude around you.”

There was one Tigers player totally unfazed about who he was locking horns with.

“I don’t look at who is on the other side,” said Rodriguez, who stole the show from Verlander, blanking the Mets on two singles over eight innings with nine strikeouts. “I just execute my pitches and that’s it.”

He was befuddling the Mets hitters, crisscrossing all quadrants of the plate with a deft blend of four-seam fastballs, cutters and sinkers, with a few well-timed changeups mixed in.

“Eduardo just shoved today,” said Alex Lange, who locked down the ninth inning and earned his fifth save. “Enough can’t be said about how well he’s throwing the ball. He’s been leading the charge for us all year. You don’t see a lot of eight-inning, no-run ball anymore. He’s electric. Pretty fun to watch and be a part of it.”

Over his last five starts, covering 34.2 innings, Rodriguez has allowed two runs with 33 strikeouts.

“It’s important for us on so many levels,” Hinch said. “For one, there is a ton of confidence the day he pitches, a feeling that we have a really good chance of winning, regardless of who is on the other side. And two, soaking up these innings does wonders for our bullpen for the next four or five days.

“You know he’s going to go six and probably seven innings and he’s going to fight to go eight or nine. It’s a real anchor for your pitching staff, a reliable starting pitcher at this level who is literally giving up no runs. It’s pretty cool to see.”

Rodriguez, whose ERA is now under 2.00 (1.82), got six of his nine strikeouts from the middle of the Mets’ order — getting Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso and Tommy Pham twice each. He punched all three out in order in the seventh.

“It’s my mindset every time I go out there, just throw strikes and try to put up zeros,” said Rodriguez, who induced 13 swings-and-misses (five with the changeup, on eight swings) and 23 called strikes. The 16 balls that were put in play against him had an average exit velocity of a meek 83 mph.

“He was dominant,” Hinch said. “You want a picture-perfect version of controlling the strike zone — he threw 70% strikes.”

He also got some help from his catcher. Jake Rogers, the last remaining piece of the Tigers’ return from the trade that sent Verlander to Houston, threw out a pair of runners trying to steal second base — Pham in the second and Brandon Nimmo in the ninth.

“It’s what you are there for, throwing out runners and getting free outs when they run the bases like that,” Rogers said. “Eduardo was incredible. He had command of all of his pitches. Pretty easy to catch when he’s like that.”

The announced crowd of 18,369 at Comerica Park gave Verlander a warm ovation at the beginning and ending of his outing.

“It was amazing,” Verlander said. “Nice to hear and I very much appreciate it.”

It wasn’t the version of Verlander most remembered, though. He started the season on the injured list with a lat strain and had made just one 69-pitch rehab start before Thursday. He gave up two solo home runs within his first nine pitches and five of the first six hitters hit balls with exit velocities of 100 mph or harder.

Greene unloaded on a hanging curveball and sent it 383 feet into the seats in right field and Báez smoked a 95-mph four-seamer, hitting it into the seats in right-center.

“I don’t know,” Verlander said. “I felt like those guys hit a couple decent pitches. That’s baseball. I felt like the control did get a little bit better as the game went along, got a little more fine. I really wouldn’t take those pitches back. I threw them where I wanted. So, just one of those days.

“Disappointing, obviously, not the first inning I would have wanted, but happy I was able to kind of start to find my groove a little bit.”

Verlander, as he typically does, finished strong. He gave up just two singles and a walk through the fifth. He was at 79 pitches and was done for the day.

“I think the wins are way more important than who you do it against,” Hinch said. “It’s nice to defend the home field against two premier pitchers, but we can’t get too caught up in that. We have to play winning baseball, and we did. Getting a series sweep against a team that’s pretty good and playing as clean as we did — that is the most important thing.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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