No-no sets stage for Verlander's historic season
May 7 gem in Toronto is moment it all clicked for Tigers ace
DETROIT -- On the scoreboard, Justin Verlander had the perfect game going. In his mind, he finally had his perfect form.
By the time the ride was over, Verlander nearly had the perfect season.
For several years, Tigers manager Jim Leyland talked about tweaking Verlander's approach to a game. Just because Verlander has the power to throw his fastball at 100 mph doesn't mean he should -- not all the time. Conserve energy early, and Verlander will have a lot left late. He'll have more balls put in play for outs sooner, and he'll take a lower pitch count into the later innings.
As Verlander walked off the mound at the end of the sixth inning May 7 at Rogers Centre, having finished off the Blue Jays in order yet again, it hit him. He felt the difference. With a well-located fastball and a slider that normally ranks as his third or fourth pitch, Verlander was dealing. Just as important, he had a pitch count at just 68 pitches through six innings. This was coming from a pitcher who once won with 125 pitches through five.
And so, in the midst of one of the greatest days of his career, Verlander took a moment and thought about the big picture. And long after his 2011 season was over, as he reflected on the awards that followed, he thought of that.
"I remember thinking, 'Let's try to carry this over for the rest of the season, because it's working pretty good for me right now,'" Verlander said last month. "That's kind of where that whole mentality came for me, because I felt that during the whole game. And after that, I went on to the best month of my career, so obviously I stuck with it."
The ensuing five weeks saw Verlander flirt with another no-hitter twice and build his reputation as the nastiest pitcher in baseball today. He had the nastiest stuff for at least a couple years before that, good enough to win 83 games over his first five Major League seasons. This was the year it truly translated into results.
The numbers have been recited enough times already this offseason with all the awards he won. A 24-5 record, 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts over 251 innings stand impressively, winning Verlander a pitching Triple Crown, but they still become numbing after enough repetitions.
Verlander pitches based on how he is feeling, and that's what he captured. He took the feeling he had May 7 and built off of that, even though he used his other pitches more often and better as the season went on. Verlander had the form he wanted where he could throw any pitch for strikes at just about any time.
That's what Verlander remembered best when he pulled back from the season and looked.
"I think I pitched better," Verlander said last month. "I think, literally, I pitched better. I got away from throwing. Early in games specifically, I slowed down on purpose to try to create a platform and build off of that. And I think looking back, that was a major change in the way I pitched. I think it's just taken time to realize. I've done that in the past, but usually it's been later in the game. ...
"Nothing mechanically was changed. I think it all comes down to slowing down and pitching better. If I'm not throwing at 100 percent [effort], if I'm throwing at 90 percent, I'm going to be much more accurate."
Verlander's offseason work hasn't changed, either. As the end-of-season awards piled up, from Players Choice Awards to the American League Cy Young Award, then the AL Most Valuable Player Award, Verlander was already gearing up his workout routine for 2012. He won't throw until January, and he joked that he refused to so much as play catch with a football when he went to a Jets game with teammate Rick Porcello. But Verlander wants to put himself into position where he takes that feeling from this year and opens the season with it, rather than taking a month to get there.
As good as he was this year, Verlander believes he can become a better pitcher. If he can recapture that feeling, he knows it.
"Yes, I think I can," Verlander said. "I don't know if I'll have a season like this again. I'm not saying I'll have a season like this, but I'm not saying I won't. I think I'm still scratching the surface here. The things I did, the work I put in in Spring Training, it changed things, and it changed me."