Justin Verlander wants to win.
In baseball, he wants to win not just the games he starts, but the games he watches from the dugout. He cheered on teammates during simulated games in Spring Training. He stopped and watched prospects in their live batting practice sessions. He gave tips when he could.
He's aware of his place among the game's great pitchers, but he's also aware of the feeling of pitching in a World Series. He has spent the last four years trying to do his part to get back after getting to the Fall Classic as a rookie in 2006. They've come tantalizingly close, including an '09 one-game tiebreaker he helped bring on by his performance in Game 162.
As he sat down and looked around at the talent in the clubhouse after one of his Spring Training starts recently, he had a good feeling about their chances to finally break through.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
"I think everybody in here should have that feel," he said. "I think we have an outstanding ballclub. If you're not excited and confident in this team, there's something wrong with you."
He isn't the only one in the Tigers' clubhouse feeling that way. Of course, he isn't the only one in the American League Central, either.
There's an upbeat feeling all around Major League clubhouses at this point. Optimism is as abundant as sunshine in Spring Training. Manager Jim Leyland expects others are feeling the same way in their camps.
"I'm very happy with my team," Leyland said, "but if you don't think Ozzie Guillen is sitting there with his and what he's got, and Minnesota's happy with theirs and what they've got ... the other team gives scholarships, too."
This, Verlander said, is a little different than the usual optimism.
"I'm always confident," he said, "but I do feel a sense there's something special going on here with this team."
If there's something special in this team this year, it starts where Verlander sits. The starting pitchers take up a corridor in the middle of the Tigers' Spring Training clubhouse, making it very difficult to go anywhere there without passing through. It's fittingly symbolic.
"It dictates everybody's success," Leyland said of the starting pitching. "If you have a good offense, it wins games. If you don't have a good offense, it keeps you in games. It gives you a chance to win a game. If you have a real good offense and real good pitching, you win a lot of games. It's that simple. But there's not many perfect teams. I like what we've got."
His evaluation of his current squad arguably says something about the confidence in his starting pitching.
"If [veteran hitters] hold true to their track record," Leyland said, "I think we're pretty good."
His pitchers are young, and aside from Verlander, they don't have long track records. But they have the talent to keep them in games, much like they did for a good portion last year. With a healthy Magglio Ordonez back, and Victor Martinez now in a Detroit uniform, they have a little more offense to support them.
"I think you can ask everybody in here right now, and I think everybody's confident we have the ability to go out and win a championship with this ballclub," Verlander said.
To Verlander's immediate right sits Rick Porcello, who worked his way back from exile in Toledo and out of a sophomore slump last summer to post a 1.16 WHIP while holding opponents to a .654 OPS. A few lockers down from him is Max Scherzer, who quietly posted some of the best numbers in the AL (11-7, 2.46 ERA, 158 strikeouts) once he returned from Toledo on Memorial Day weekend.
Verlander will start Opening Day Thursday against the Yankees. Scherzer will start Sunday's series finale there, followed by Porcello on Monday at Baltimore for the Orioles' home opener.
All of them are in their 20s, all are former top Draft picks, and all have the capability to dominate a game in different fashions when they're on -- Verlander overpowering hitters, Scherzer changing speeds, Porcello getting ground balls. If the Tigers are going to retake the Central, not just hang around, it most likely starts with them to set the tone.
"As pitchers, it's your job to keep your team in the game," Porcello said. "You don't want to put too much pressure on yourself, because it is a team game. But you're the one that's controlling the game, really. If you go out there and you have timely shutdown innings and pitch deep into the game, keep your team in the game, I think you're going to be pretty successful.
"We've got an outstanding offensive lineup and they're going to put up runs. I think it comes down to this with a lot of teams, unless you have a club that's just putting up 10 runs a game. It's a matter of pitching and keeping your bullpen fresh too."
The Spring Training scores played out with an eerie consistency, even if it included a lot of Minor League prospects. The Tigers had their second-best Spring Training record in 30 years, yet didn't score in double digits other than their exhibition with Florida Southern College. They had a 1-0 win, four 2-1 contests and 10 other games in which they allowed two runs or fewer. They entered Monday leading the AL in Spring Training ERA. They had surprising pitching contributions from their Minor League system, but the bulk of the contribution came from their big league staff.
"It's been a positive spring for us," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Now we have to go out and do it on the field. That's really what it comes down to. We've got good teams in our division. We've got good teams in the league. That's really a situation where now you have to go out and you have to do it."
They bulked up the late end of their bullpen with Joaquin Benoit and his inconceivable setup numbers from last year to help shorten games for their starters. If they can get offense out of the middle of their lineup, centered around Miguel Cabrera but also featuring a more productive bottom third of the lineup, and they can carry a lead to their bullpen -- getting some consistency from seventh-inning setup -- they have the chance at something big.
"[I'm] a little bit [concerned] about the bullpen, and a little bit about the rotation," Leyland said. "I think everything, with all teams, things normally start with the rotation. Because the better off they are, normally you can maneuver with your bullpen because you want to, not because you have to. So I think that's probably the No. 1 key. I'm a little bit concerned about one inning during the course of the game, two outs here and there.
"We look pretty good, I think."
So do a lot of other teams, he cautioned.
"I would hope," Leyland said, "that the other managers are saying the same thing about us."