Verlander is locked in

MIKE RUTSEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:34 AM ET

TORONTO - You could hold a pretty fiery debate over just who is the best starter on the Philadelphia Phillies staff and, thus, the leading National League Cy Young contender — Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee.

In the American League, however, there doesn’t seem to be much of a debate at all — it’s Justin Verlander and then there’s the rest.

In Boston, the rabble that packs Fenway may want to bring up Jon Lester or Josh Beckett’s name but to those folks we say: ‘Give your head a shake.’

Even the Yankee Stadium crowd, homers but knowledgeable, would have to tip their caps to Verlander over their own guy, CC Sabathia.

Verlander, the big right-hander with the 100 mile-per-hour heater, did his thing on Thursday afternoon against the Mets, stopping in its tracks a team that had gone on a crazy four-game slugfest.

Against the Mets, the Tigers ace wasn’t at his best, but was still good enough to hold them to seven hits and one run over seven innings as he walked two and struck out six in a 5-2 victory.

“I didn’t pitch well, but I battled well,” said Verlander, who finished June with a 6-0 record and an 0.92 ERA. “I’ve been on a pretty good run here. I had pretty doggone good stuff for a period of time here. You’ve got to know that’s not going to last an entire season.”

Verlander is more than simply being on a roll. He has pitched his way into a zone that is the most special of spots to be in, one where only Lee currently resides in the senior circuit.

Verlander has now won seven in a row to become only the second Detroit pitcher since 1919 to win seven consecutive starts while working at least seven innings and allowing two or fewer runs each time. Over those seven starts, Verlander has tossed 56.2 innings, thrown two complete games, allowed 33 hits, walked eight and struck out 57.

Since no-hitting the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre back on May 7, he has gone 9-0 in 11 starts.

Overall, he is 11-3 with a 2.32 ERA. On the mound, he oozes confidence and is a major reason why everyone expects the Tigers to keep moving away from the overachieving Cleveland Indians and leave them looking at their taillights for the remainder of the season.

He is the big horse that pulls the Tigers’ train.

“He’s obviously on a roll right now,” manager Jim Leyland said after his previous start. “He’s one of the best. You can see his mindset is getting more mature all the time. It’s my favourite line: You can’t make a senior out of a freshman. It takes time. He just keeps maturing and getting better and better.”

To which Verlander added the obvious.

“I feel like I’m throwing the ball really well,” he said. “I feel like my fastball control has been outstanding, for the most part, during this stretch.”

The only thing missing from his repertoire is a catchy nickname.

How about ‘Cy’?

Six and counting

Beginning Monday in Cleveland, Derek Jeter will be back with the Yankees to pick up his pursuit of the 3,000-hit plateau.

The Yankees great, who is a future Hall of Famer when his career comes to an end, sits just six hits shy of that fabled figure.

Jeter’s run to 3,000 and his level of play this season has been something of a double-edged sword. In New York, the shortstop is a god and all that, but the level of his play and his contributions, or lack of same, have contributed to something of a dilemma.

Simply put, Jeter, who turned 37 last Sunday, isn’t that good any more and during his absence the Yankees, following Thursday’s game, have gone 12-2 with backup shortstop Eduardo Nunez manning the position.

Given that this season would be the one where he would obtain his 3,000th hit, it figured that there would be nothing but hosannah’s written about the icon.

But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Three weeks into the season when he was hitting .219 (14-for-64) with just one extra-base hit, articles about Jeter being washed up were found in every baseball publication and on every website.

Given how well the team has performed in his absence and the mediocrity of his play — on the season he is hitting .260 (68-for-262) with just 12 extra-base hits and all of two home runs, both of them coming in a game against Texas on May 8.

Not only do critics wonder how often he should play upon his return but, when he does, where he should bat in the lineup. How long he deserves to be atop the lineup in the leadoff spot is open for debate.

Following the three-game series against the Indians, the Yankees have a four-game series in the Bronx against Tampa and both the organization and the fans can only hope that he strikes the historic blow at home.

Following the all-star break, the Yankees open on the road with their first stop a four-game series at the Rogers Centre against the Jays.

But what to do with Jeter and what of his future beyond 3,000 hits? He has two more seasons on his latest contract and if the slide in production continues, along with his diminished range, just where do the Yankees play him or bat him?

It’s been a joyous climb to 3,000 and Jeter has been more than a pleasure to watch.

But that train is now quickly approaching the end of the line.

Theo keeps bar high

To the surprise of no one, Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein went on record the other day in Philadelphia to announce that he will be going “all in” when it comes to acquiring and moving bodies as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.

The Red Sox were just about everybody’s pick to represent the AL in this season’s World Series but, after losing two of three to the Phillies and with the hated Yankees sweeping the Brewers, they found themselves Friday morning in second spot in the AL East, 21/2 games back of the Bronx Bombers.

In Boston, that doesn’t sit well and there are obvious areas that need improvement.

“We may be very active in trade, or we may be less active and do some smaller things. We’ll see. We’re certainly not a perfect club,” Epstein told reporters. “There are needs that we have, areas we’re going to attempt to upgrade.”

One of them is right field where the platoon of J.D. Drew (.232 with four homers and 18 RBIs) and Mike Cameron (.149, 3, 9), who was recently designated for assignment, wasn’t getting it done.

“It’s certainly a spot where we’re not producing much,” Theo admitted. “Concern? I wouldn’t say concern. Obviously, we’ve noticed. You’d have to be blind not to notice that we’re not getting much out of right field.”

Money, of course, is no impediment and if they have to add to their $161 million payroll, they will.

“As an organization, collectively, we find a way to do what it takes to put a winning club on the field,” he said. “I’m not going to get into specifics about the finances but I think we’ll be aggressive.’’

Talk about raising the bar of expectations.

Home beasts, road bums

The Milwaukee Brewers finished June by what has become all too familiar, losing all three games on the road, this time to the New York Yankees.

In their home, Miller Park, the Brewers are next to unbeatable, having forged a 29-11 record. On the road, though, they are 15-27, the worst mark in the National League.

In spite of that, they sit atop the NL Central but their grip is a tenuous one at best. They will be tested severely the next three weeks. Of their next 21 games, 18 come against teams with a winning record and 14 of them are on the road. From beasts at home to bums on the road, that’s been the lot of this season’s Brewers.

“We haven’t played that great on the road,” Shaun Marcum said the other day, stating the obvious. “Whether it’s the Yankees or Red Sox, it doesn’t really matter. We need to start winning some games on the road, and we’ll go from there.”

This deep into a season, though, trends have definitely been established and it will be a Herculean task for the Brewers to turn it around on the road.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Marcum said of the Jekyll-and-Hyde routine. “I think we’ve done the same things we’ve done at home. We’re just getting beat. Hopefully, we can find a way to get it done.”

If not, a division pennant won’t be in the cards.

Marlins' June swoon

At least the Florida Marlins closed out June in style, winning back-to-back games against the Oakland A’s.

They were due. Two wins in a row is hardly a hot streak but for the Marlins in June it represented 40% of their triumphs as they staggered through the month by going 5-23.

Along the way, as the losses mounted, the Marlins fired a hitting coach (John Mallee), lost their manager (Edwin Rodriguez) as he resigned and hired 80-year-old Jack McKeon to replace him. During the ordeal they lost a game when they fired a wild pitch while attempting an intentional walk and also lost 14 one-run games before their 5-4 victory over the A’s on Thursday.

Prior to their two-game winning streak, the Marlins had scored one run or fewer in 10 of their previous 16 games.

“July, new month,” Hanley Ramirez said. “Thank God this month is over.”

Dodgers just being 'Frank'

There is little doubt that the ensuing court battle between Major League Baseball and Frank McCourt, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, now that the proceedings have moved to bankruptcy court in Delaware, is going to be a pit (as in s--t) show.

Not that it hasn’t been already. The snickering that you hear, well, that’s coming from the folks in Boston who can gleefully snort: ‘ I told you so’ concerning the financial comings and goings of McCourt.

The biggest sin in the whole mess, of course, is the simple fact that commissioner Bud Selig allowed McCourt to purchase the Dodgers in the first place.

All that has followed has originated in that initial failure by Selig to conduct a thorough due diligence or, more likely, ignore what the due diligence revealed. McCourt had no skin in the game, not any of his own, when he purchased the Dodgers for $421 million US in 2004.

One of the more damning statements regarding McCourt’s purchase was issued by Bob Daly, the managing partner for the Dodgers under News Corp., which sold the team to McCourt.

“Fox, myself and MLB made a horrible mistake ... on Frank McCourt,” Daly told the Los Angeles Times. “I helped get him approved, and for my piece I feel very bad about it. ... He has been an embarrassment to this franchise. The sooner he gets the hell out of town, the better off we’ll all be as Dodger fans.”

That pretty much says it all.


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