The right-hander handled the Yankees' jet-lagged offense by scattering seven hits -- all singles -- and striking out a season-high nine over seven-plus scoreless innings, including retiring eight straight through one stretch.
Verlander (1-2) did not walk a batter, forcing the Yankees to put the ball in play during a game played in two hours and 19 minutes -- a downright brisk pace after a sluggish weekend series against the Red Sox.
"That's by far the best I've seen him," Mark Teixeira said. "His velocity was 95 to 99 [mph], which you don't see from starters very much. He was throwing his breaking ball for strikes, his changeup for strikes. He was pretty good."
"He didn't walk anybody -- he was throwing strikes," Jeter added. "It wasn't like you could sit back and say we were going to be patient. He was getting ahead of guys. This is one of those days when we had a tough assignment."
Making his fifth start in a Yankees uniform, Sabathia turned what manager Joe Girardi thought was his best outing to date, going the distance in just 99 pitches, but ultimately the $161 million ace could not right the ship alone.
Sabathia (1-2) agreed that his start was tops "so far," crediting his ability to attack the zone and get ahead early in the count to keep his pitch count down. That was small consolation.
"It's tough," Sabathia said. "It's baseball and it's early; it's April. We're still trying to get our legs under us. We've just got to go out and keep playing hard. We've got a good team in here, and things will turn around."
Girardi guessed that Sabathia made a grand total of three mistakes all night, allowing a Placido Polanco double in the first inning that turned into a run on a Miguel Cabrera hit, plus a two-base hit to Polanco in the sixth inning that scored Curtis Granderson from first base after a daring bunt single.
Of the pitches to Polanco, Sabathia said, "They were pitches down right in his happy zone. Those were the pitches of the game."
The other scoring against Sabathia, the Yankees thought, was bad luck. The wind had been blowing in from right field all night, but it ceased just in time for Magglio Ordonez to dink a two-run homer off the top of the fence in the sixth, out of the reach of right fielder Nick Swisher.
With four runs in against Sabathia and the Tigers (11-8) in the driver's seat, Verlander exited to a standing ovation after allowing two hits in the eighth inning. Bobby Seay got Johnny Damon on a shattered bat popup, and Teixeira flew out to deep left before Hideki Matsui struck out.
The Yankees (9-10) were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position until Swisher delivered an RBI single off Fernando Rodney in the ninth inning. Jorge Posada hit into a double play that scored Swisher, but Rodney locked the game down by getting Ramiro Pena to sky to left. They finished 1-for-9.
"We just haven't gotten it done, and I think everyone needs to step up a little bit," Teixeira said. "It's not like we can point at one thing that's been our downfall. There've been days we've pitched and not hit -- like today -- and days we haven't pitched. We've all got to step up."
Girardi tried to look at it optimistically, saying of his club's struggles with men aboard: "The big thing is you've got to keep putting them on. If you keep putting runners on, you're going to score runs. The fact that we're putting them on is a good sign, and that will turn."
But not soon enough, not after the Yankees left two games slip away in Boston -- one on a Mariano Rivera blown save and another when A.J. Burnett couldn't hold a six-run lead -- before dropping the finale on national television Sunday night.
The first evening under the lights in Detroit presented defeat in new fashion, watching their top pitcher be overmatched by a dominant starter. But it counts as a loss all the same.
"They're all frustrating," Girardi said. "This is frustrating because we had a couple of chances and we weren't able to do it. You think that if your starting pitcher makes three mistakes the whole night, you're probably going to win the game."