NEW YORK -- Justin Verlander left the mound from his Opening Day start with a strikeout and a fist pump. The work he had put in all winter to get in midseason form paid off to an extent on the big stage of Yankee Stadium and a national television audience.
Verlander couldn't do anything, though, about another big Opening Day for his former teammate, Curtis Granderson. The right-hander couldn't be blamed, though, if he wishes he could open the season with results like that.
"I enjoyed watching him play with us -- I can't say I enjoyed watching him today," Verlander said after Granderson's tiebreaking seventh-inning home run off Phil Coke helped send the Tigers to a 6-3 loss on Thursday. "But I wish him the best when he's not playing us."
Verlander was back in the Tigers' dugout when Granderson struck his third straight Opening Day homer, continuing a streak that began in 2009 as a Tiger. It took all Verlander had to keep the Tigers even with the Yankees through six innings. It wasn't until after Verlander left that the Yankees outpitched them.
"The long ball beat us," manager Jim Leyland said. "They hit a couple of balls out of the ballpark."
One of those home runs came off Verlander -- a three-run shot from Mark Teixeira in the third inning that seemingly had the Tigers' ace headed for another long afternoon in his fourth Opening Day start. He had topped 60 pitches through three innings, including a 31-pitch opening frame in which he overcame back-to-back walks to hold New York scoreless. Facing a first-pitch temperature of 42, a damp breeze and an early drizzle, Verlander had little feel for any pitch other than his fastball, which stayed at 95-96 mph on the stadium radar gun.
But as the game rolled along, Verlander physically adapted to the conditions, finding a little more feel. He then called upon a little more guile.
"Obviously, coming out of the spring that I had, this is not the result that I wanted," Verlander said. "But when you kind of take it back and look at the whole big picture, I was somewhat pleased, especially after the way the first couple of innings went. I was able to tone down and pitch about as good as I could.
"There was the one inning I threw primarily all fastballs -- the fourth -- got a decent feel for my mechanics and where I needed [them] to be, and then kind of expounded upon that with some offspeed stuff and just mixed in some different pitches once I got the feel that I wanted."
That goes against the usual Verlander script. He can hit top velocity with his fastball late in outings, when most hitters expect a pitcher to wear down and run out of gas.
Verlander retired nine straight until Alex Rodriguez doubled off the fence in right-center field with one out in the sixth. Once Robinson Cano followed with a walk, Verlander stepped up again, spotting a 96-mph fastball off the outside corner to get a called third strike on Nick Swisher. After Jorge Posada worked the count full to send the runners in motion, Verlander answered with an 85-mph changeup that dropped as Posada swung and missed.
Asked if a younger Verlander would've reared back, the right-hander answered, "Probably, especially there at 3-1, 3-2 [counts]. But I'm trying to become a better pitcher. I'm trying to mix things up a little bit, not to say that I won't do that if it comes up again."
The last time Verlander and Granderson played on the same field as teammates, Granderson made a diving catch that essentially saved Game 162 for the Tigers in 2009 and forced a one-game tiebreaker with the Twins. It was Granderson's next-to-last game as a Tiger before Detroit dealt him that winter; Austin Jackson and Phil Coke came over from New York.
Granderson's diving catch in the first inning to rob Will Rhymes, who now wears Granderson's old No. 28, looked eerily similar. But it did not draw cheers out of Detroit.
"Curtis played a great game today, all around," Rhymes said. "He made a few really good plays. I felt as a team, we hit the ball really well. It was just one of those days."
Granderson also made a catch in full retreat, sprinting to deep center field to rob Brandon Inge, another ex-teammate, of extra bases in the ninth. But it was Granderson's homer that put the Tigers down.
The Tigers converted Coke to a starter this spring, but they have him in the bullpen until they need a fifth starter on April 9. With Joel Zumaya sidelined, Coke was back in his old setup role of sorts, this time enlisted to protect a tied score. Once he fell behind Granderson on a 2-0 count, however, Coke was in trouble.
Granderson showed improvement against left-handed pitching last year under the tutelage of Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. Once he got a fastball over the plate from Coke (0-1), he turned on it.
"I went out there and just couldn't throw the first couple over the plate," Coke said. "Next thing I know, I'm down 2-0. Next thing I know, the ball leaves the yard."
Said Leyland: "He just got behind on Granderson. He left no doubt what was coming. He charged it."
It would've been a stranger feeling last year, with the trade and the emotions still fresh. It feels different to Granderson now.
"You start to realize you've got to do what you do," Granderson said. "You've made friendships, you continue to make friendships with new teams and that's what I'm continuing to do now. Nothing's forgotten in Detroit, but the history starts to set in. It's another year removed, another day removed and another game removed."
It's another Opening Day without a win for Verlander. But it wasn't for a badly pitched game.