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Miller was on learning curve

He kept Sox far off balance

DETROIT -- His rise has been so swift that his self-described "nasty-looking" excuse for a beard looks like youthful indiscretion. Except his youthful indiscretion happens to be viewed by, oh, 40,000 or so screaming fans every time he comes to the mound. Still, Andrew Miller, just more than a year removed from his final college pitch at North Carolina, remains unsculpted and unfinished, though his repertoire appears to be getting better by the day.

Last night, Miller dusted off a stellar curveball -- notably on a strikeout of Dustin Pedroia in the third to end one of the few threatening innings in the Tigers' 9-2 victory at Comerica Park. Less than two months since his first major league start, May 18 against the Cardinals, the 22-year-old Miller turned in perhaps the best performance of his young career, silencing Red Sox bats that produced 15 runs against the Devil Rays the night before.

"Probably three big keys. No. 1 he had his best curve by far that he's had so far," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "And that was very important. No. 2, they hadn't seen him before. And No. 3, they had a couple of big boys out of there. I don't want to take anything away from Andrew; he was tremendous."

Through the first six innings, the eighth pick in the 2006 draft had allowed just five base runners -- three hits, two walks -- in stifling the Red Sox' offense. Other than a brief spurt in that third inning -- a leadoff triple by Wily Mo Peña (who was gunned down by Curtis Granderson at home), a walk to Julio Lugo, and a single by Coco Crisp -- Miller hardly let the Sox get settled, with a fastball routinely in the mid-90s and that newly found curveball.

"Compared to two starts ago, it's a thousand times better because I didn't really throw any two starts ago," Miller said. "I had nowhere to go but get better. It was a good pitch before I started playing pro ball, and I kind of got away from it for whatever reason. It's nice to have it back a little bit to the point where I feel like I can use it, especially against left- and righthanded hitters."

He found trouble in the seventh inning by allowing two walks, not surprising for a pitcher with 13 in 28 1/3 innings before last night. Then Leyland came out for a visit.

"I just told him, 'Look. You're throwing the ball real good,' " Leyland said. " 'Don't start trying to set it over the plate. Just continue to throw the way you've been throwing it all night. Don't lay it in there. Throw the ball.'

"Sometimes you get a lead like that and you're trying not to let it slip away instead of just attacking."

And when Leyland left the mound alone, the 43,839 in attendance appreciated it, demonstrating with a massive cheer. Leyland's patience was rewarded as Miller got Jeff Bailey to hit into a fielder's choice to shortstop and Julio Lugo followed with a liner to short to end the inning, and Miller's night.

With seven days off between starts against Philadelphia (June 16) and Atlanta, Miller (4-2) used two bullpen sessions to refine his curveball. Even with his stellar fastball, he needs offspeed stuff to make it at the major league level.

There's more, too. Taking full blame for allowing big jumps on stolen bases in the third inning, one each by Lugo and Crisp, he acknowledged "every time there's something new to work on."

Makes sense for a guy with just a handful of major league starts (six), and not many more in the minor leagues.

"Most people have a tendency to expect perfection and all that kind of stuff every time," Leyland said. "He's going to have some setbacks. He'll get knocked around some on a given night. He's going to do good, too. I really like him a lot. He's got a lot of stuff going for him.

"I've stressed this all along since I've been here. I'm a talent guy. I'm a big believer in talent. He's got talent.

"I'd rather take my chances with that and understand that you're going to have some tough nights along the way."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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