After an inconsistent season while pitching under the pressure of a sizable new contract, Justin Verlander has gotten off to a solid start in 2014.
No matter how well he pitches, though, the Detroit Tigers are going to need to start putting more runs on the board.
Verlander takes the mound as Detroit looks to break out of its slump Thursday against the visiting Cleveland Indians.
The Tigers gave Verlander a seven-year, $180 million contract in March 2013, making him the highest-paid pitcher of all-time before Clayton Kershaw's $215 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in January.
The right-hander struggled at times after agreeing to the contract and finished 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA, his highest since a 4.84 mark in 2008. Verlander (1-1, 2.57 ERA) has been solid in each of his three starts in 2014, though, most recently giving up two runs and striking out eight in seven innings of a 6-2 win over San Diego on Saturday.
He's given up two earned runs in each outing, with the Tigers (6-5) winning twice.
"He knows how to pace himself," catcher Alex Avila said. "He knows how to pitch. If you can make two, three, maybe four quality pitches early in the at-bat, you can get a quick out."
Verlander originally was scheduled to pitch Friday's series opener against the Los Angeles Angels, but with Drew Smyly back in the rotation, manager Brad Ausmus shuffled his pitching order. Smyly will make his first start Friday.
No matter who is on the mound, the Tigers need to start scoring. They've dropped five of seven since a 4-0 start and have scored two runs or fewer five times during the slump.
Miguel Cabrera drove in both runs in Wednesday's 3-2 loss to Cleveland, but he's gone 3 for 24 over his last six games.
Detroit's only victory in the last week was the last time Verlander took the mound. He went 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA in five starts against the Indians in 2013, striking out 35 in 32 innings.
Verlander dueled with Danny Salazar and gave up four hits in seven innings before Detroit scored all of its runs in the ninth to win 4-0 the last time he faced Cleveland on Sept. 1.
Salazar allowed six hits in six innings in that game, and he'll oppose Verlander again. Salazar (0-1, 6.75) gave up five runs in 3 2-3 innings of a 7-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox last Thursday, but 10 of the 11 outs he recorded were strikeouts.
''I'd rather see it over seven innings," manager Terry Francona said. "Again, the stuff is there. He is young. He is still learning how to pitch. We love him to death, but there is still some learning to do."
The 24-year-old right-hander has made two of his 12 career starts against Detroit, also giving up four runs in 7 2-3 innings of a 6-5, 14-inning loss Aug. 7 in his second career outing.
Salazar will look to help the Indians (7-7) win for the third time in four games after Yan Gomes had a two-run triple and Lonnie Chisenhall added two hits in the series opener after Tuesday's game was postponed.
Cleveland has won two straight meetings after dropping 14 of the previous 15.