Verlander shuts down Twins; Tigers' division lead grows

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- In his 15th season as a major-league manager, Jim Leyland has perfected the level head. Detroit's once-staggering lead in the division race has dwindled, but the Tigers are following Leyland's example and trying to keep their cool down the stretch.

"I'll panic when my kid flunks math," Leyland deadpanned in his raspy voice after Justin Verlander pitched the Tigers past Minnesota 7-2 on Thursday night to extend their AL Central lead to five games over the second-place Twins.

Verlander gave up one run in seven innings for the Tigers, who once led the division by 10 games but are a mere 10-18 since Aug. 7.

"It's nice to get a win under your belt, but we're smart enough to know that this thing is going to go back and forth to the end," Leyland said. "That's what a pennant race is all about."

Curtis Granderson hit a tone-setting homer on the third pitch of the night against Scott Baker (4-8), and Marcus Thames took him deep in the second, a two-run shot that put Detroit up 3-0.

Verlander (16-7) didn't need any more support, but he got a two-run single by Craig Monroe in the fifth and a home run by Ivan Rodriguez in the seventh off Matt Guerrier.

Michael Cuddyer stopped the shutout with his 21st homer in the bottom of that inning, one of eight hits scattered by Verlander -- who walked two, struck out five and had his curveball working well.

"He ate us up," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "This guy tonight can do that to you. Some of the others we've faced, maybe not. But he was nasty."

Torii Hunter added an RBI single in the ninth but the Twins, who maintain a half-game lead over the Chicago White Sox, have scored more than two runs only twice in their last 11 games.

Luis Castillo was picked off first base after a single to start the fourth. Minnesota put the leadoff man on in the third, fifth and sixth, but Jason Tyner, Hunter and Jason Bartlett each followed with double-play groundouts.

Bartlett's was the biggest, because Castillo and Nick Punto followed with singles. Joe Mauer, clinging to the AL batting lead, grounded out to end that inning. He went 1-for-4 and saw his average drop to .3444, just ahead of the Yankees' Derek Jeter (.344).

Verlander was given nine days off between starts in early August, and the extra rest has given him strength for September. Four of his five outings last month were shaky, but the rookie right-hander has allowed only one run in 14 innings over his last two appearances.

"I definitely think it was beneficial. Anytime you can get some time in there to rest your arm, it's going to help you," Verlander said.

Though the Tigers still have the best record in the AL, they arrived at this series with a chance to fall out of sole possession of first place for the first time since May 20 -- a sobering possibility for a club that climbed 40 games above the .500 mark, at 76-36. With pressure from both the Twins and White Sox, the playoffs are by no means a sure thing.

Detroit will finish the weekend still on top of the division, but Minnesota wasn't worried.

"We're still in good shape," Tyner said. "I think we feel all right. We haven't been playing that great, but luckily neither have the Tigers or White Sox."

Though Baker held New York's heavy hitters to two hits and one run in five innings during a 6-1 victory last weekend, he wasn't the guy the Twins would have preferred to pitch in the opener of this critical four-game series.

Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke are still hurt, though, and it's up to Baker, Matt Garza and Boof Bonser -- all rookies -- to hold the rotation together until All-Star Johan Santana throws Sunday.

Baker, whose ERA rose to 6.72, continued to have trouble keeping his pitches down in the strike zone. He allowed nine hits and five runs in five innings, striking out two.

"I want to be at a point where there's no thought process," Baker said. "The harder I try to make that perfect pitch, it's just not happening."

Game notes
Omar Infante homered off Guerrier in the ninth. ... The day for Liriano's rehab start is still up in the air, but the plan is for him to rejoin the Twins and pitch sometime in the middle of next week. ... Detroit shortstop Carlos Guillen (hamstring) sat out for the fifth straight game and probably won't play Friday.