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Justin Verlander tosses two-hitter as Tigers move atop AL Central

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander thought he had his best stuff of the season.

That was great for the Detroit Tigers and really bad for the Cleveland Indians.

Verlander nearly pitched another no-hitter, taking his latest bid into the eighth inning, to lead Detroit past Cleveland 4-0 on Tuesday night and into first place in the AL Central.

His fastball was approaching 100 mph and with the same arm speed, his knee-buckling breaking pitches were about 20 mph slower and just as unhittable.

"It's kind of tough on hitters when I can change speeds, elevation and do what I want to do," Verlander said.

Indeed.

Verlander (8-3) had a season-high 12 strikeouts in a two-hitter. He walked one, hit a batter with a pitch and has won six straight decisions.

With two no-hitters already on his resume, including one in Toronto last month, Verlander dominated the slumping Indians until Orlando Cabrera lined a clean single to center with one out in the eighth.

"With that guy, you feel lucky any time you get a hit," Cabrera said. "You just go up there and keep battling and hope he throws you something you can get your bat on.

"There's no embarrassment when it is being done by one of the best pitchers in the game," he said.

The crowd groaned when Cabrera smacked a single to center and flipped his bat toward Cleveland's dugout when he was about halfway up the line.

Verlander was told what Cabrera did and said he'd remember it even though the flipped bat might've been a sign of frustration more than disrespect or showmanship.

"If he wants to flick his bat when it's 4-0 and they just got their first hit in the eighth inning, if that's the type of player he is, that's fine," Verlander said. "You can't worry about guys like that."

Verlander fell five outs shy of becoming the sixth pitcher with three career no-hitters.

Four of them are in the Hall of Fame: Nolan Ryan (seven), Sandy Koufax (four), Bob Feller (three) and Cy Young (three). Larry Corcoran, an ambidextrous pitcher who won 177 games from 1880-85, is the other one.

"After the second one, a lot of guys told me once you get to three no-hitters, you're talking about guys like Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan," Verlander said. "Pretty elite territory."

Verlander looked as though he might have another special night when center fielder Austin Jackson leaped over the right-center wall -- getting his shoulder at the top of the fence -- to rob Shin-Soo Choo of a solo homer in the second inning.

He struck out two batters in three of the first four innings and didn't need any more spectacular plays to finish Detroit's major league-high ninth shutout of the season.

It was the second one for Verlander, and his third complete game. He has five shutouts and 13 complete games in his career.

Verlander pitched his first no-hitter on June 12, 2007, against the Milwaukee Brewers and then duplicated the feat May 7 against the Blue Jays. In his next start, he took a no-hit bid into the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals.

He was also trying to become the sixth pitcher to throw two no-hitters in one season -- including Roy Halladay, who tossed his second gem in the NL playoffs last year.

It was the second time in three days that a pitcher flirted with his second no-hitter this season. Minnesota Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano, who tossed a no-no just days before Verlander's gem in Toronto, carried a no-hit bid into the eighth on Sunday against the Texas Rangers.

Verlander lowered his ERA to 2.66 in his masterful performance against Cleveland.

"He's nasty and he's going to make guys look a little silly up there," Detroit catcher Alex Avila said. "That's what happens when you can throw anywhere from 78 to 98 (mph) with a nasty curveball, changeup."

Verlander heard a chorus of cheers when Cleveland finally got a hit and saw a standing ovation when he walked off the mound after the eighth inning. He didn't make any sort of gesture toward the 28,128 fans either time.

"If that's the end of my evening, I'm going to acknowledge it," Verlander said.

Carlos Santana blooped a single to left with two outs in the ninth and Verlander dropped briefly into a disappointed crouch. But he retired Michael Brantley on a routine grounder to end it.

Andy Dirks drove in two runs for the Tigers, who have won 12 of 16 to move into sole possession of the division lead for the first time this year.

"It's early in the season, but we've got to get there at some point," Verlander said. "We've got the talent. We should win a lot of ballgames."

Still missing injured slugger Travis Hafner, the Indians lost for the 15th time in 20 games and fell out of first place for the first time since April 6.

"Our kids are young, but they aren't naive," Cleveland manager Manny Acta said. "They know there are no trophies for first place in June."

Verlander has won his last four starts and hasn't lost since April 27.

Back then, Justin Masterson was on a roll for the Indians. Since then, he's been in a slump for a team plummeting after a strong start.

Masterson (5-5) gave up four runs -- two earned -- on seven hits and five walks over 6 1/3 innings. He is 0-5 since his last victory April 26.

"I feel for the guy," Acta said. "He keeps pitching well, but we're not hitting."

Game notes
Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez didn't play but is expected to be in the lineup Wednesday night and Thursday against Cleveland. ... Hafner is beginning a rehab assignment with Double-A Akron. He has been on the DL since May 20 with a strained oblique. ... Detroit didn't have an extra-base hit, snapping its 66-game streak to start the season that was its longest since at least 1919 ... Cleveland right-hander Jason Knapp had a second shoulder operation, another setback for a player acquired in the Cliff Lee trade. ... Yankees lefty Jim Abbott was the last pitcher to hold Cleveland hitless on Sept. 4, 1993, in New York.