Coming off his worst season in five years for the Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander was sharp in his 2014 debut aside from having to escape from one nearly disastrous inning.
Now the ace right-hander looks to lead the Tigers to their first 5-0 start since 2006 on Sunday night when they wrap up their season-opening homestand against the Baltimore Orioles.
At 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA in 2013, Verlander (0-0, 3.00 ERA) suffered through his worst campaign since going 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA in 2008. He then underwent surgery in January after injuring his groin, but looked strong in pitching 20 scoreless innings during spring training.
In his much-anticipated start Monday, Verlander allowed three runs over six innings with only two strikeouts in a season-opening 4-3 win over Kansas City.
The six-time All-Star, however, did not fare in the decision after throwing 33 pitches in the Royals' three-run fourth inning. He stepped up to end the threat by getting a key popout with the bases loaded.
"A big hit there to the next guy, that's how the wheels fall off," Verlander told the league's official website.
Verlander hopes to avoid falling into that kind of a jam and keep Detroit (4-0) rolling after Torii Hunter homered and drove in five runs in a 7-6 victory over Baltimore on Saturday. Closer Joe Nathan had to come in to get the final two outs after the Orioles (1-4) had scored five in the ninth.
The Tigers, baseball's only undefeated team, haven't opened a season with five straight wins in eight years. They've given their pitchers plenty of support with 17 runs and 30 hits in the first two games of this series.
''Hopefully we go 162-0,'' said Hunter, who has gone 5 for 8 with two homers and six RBIs in the series. ''It would be awesome.''
Verlander had been 8-0 with a 2.93 ERA over 12 career starts against the Orioles before getting tagged for five runs and seven hits - two homers - over five innings in a 5-2 home loss June 18.
Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy both took Verlander deep in that contest, though Jones is just 3 for 27 lifetime in the matchup. Hardy, however, is 5 for 11 with three home runs versus Verlander the past two seasons.
Hardy and slugger Chris Davis each had two hits in Saturday's loss, but Davis may be hard-pressed to match that as he enters this game 3 for 17 with nine strikeouts lifetime against Verlander.
''We've got the first part of games down, and we're doing well at the ends of games, but we've got to figure out how to hold our own in the middle," manager Buck Showalter said after his team's fourth straight loss. "The starters have to get us deeper into games.''
Chris Tillman (0-0, 1.80) will try to accomplish that after throwing 104 pitches in only five innings while allowing one run in a 2-1 win over visiting Boston on Monday. The right-hander has gone 2-0 with a 4.32 ERA in his last three starts against the Tigers - all Baltimore victories.
Miguel Cabrera should be able to continue his success against the Orioles since he's 4 for 9 with a homer when facing Tillman. The two-time AL MVP has gone 5 for 9 with a home run in this series and is batting .515 with 10 homers in the last 17 meetings.