Verlander's spring debut goes off without a hitch
Tigers ace eager to get into steady Grapefruit League routine
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Justin Verlander and Alex Avila went through their set of signs like they were practicing their head shakes and hand signals. Verlander bypassed the curveball he'd been trying to locate for three straight pitches, opted against firing up a fastball, and thought better of the change.
Eventually, after Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion called time out to break up the exchange, they came around to the slider. By Verlander's admission, it's his fourth pitch. But then, it was his best pitch the day he no-hit the Blue Jays last May, and this was his first matchup with them since.
Verlander hadn't thrown one since last year until he tossed one warming up in the bullpen Monday afternoon, and he compared that one to horse manure. The only reason he threw it then was that he thought he might use it at some point in the game. On a full-count pitch with a runner on first in the first inning, having tried to get Encarnacion to swing at a breaking ball, it was his pitch of choice.
"I feel like the slider's pretty easy to throw for a strike," Verlander said, "and that's why I wanted to throw it. So I threw a pretty good one."
Verlander spotted it like it was one of his knee-buckling curves, leaving Encarnacion looking at strike three. Simple, maybe, but it was his fourth-best pitch, which he threw for the second time this year, and it was his first real inning of the spring.
Asked how many pitchers could do that, Avila shook his head.
"Not too many," Avila said. "That's why he's so good."
Verlander's good enough to execute, on demand, a pitch he threw less than half as often as any of his other pitches over the last five years, according to fangraphs.com. But if it's a pitch he's going to execute in the regular season, he wants to be able to execute it in the spring.
"It's just an extra weapon for him," manager Jim Leyland said. "It's in his arsenal if he needs it."
Not many pitchers would take time after each of their first two innings to talk with the home-plate umpire about what they saw from their pitches, either. Yet while the Tigers were coming off the field and preparing to bat, Verlander was having a calm, relaxed discussion with longtime Major League umpire Jerry Layne, who works a lot of Tigers games so close to his offseason home.
Verlander's regular-season intensity to Spring Training work has been well-chronicled. It started here last year, and it set him up for one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in a generation. It became apparent during the games, from his approach to his execution.
Others have tried to take a lesson from his work -- Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer and Duane Below all moved up their throwing programs earlier this winter -- but it's difficult to duplicate Verlander. He didn't have his usual pre-start meal from Taco Bell, and he couldn't find his headphones that he usually wears into Comerica Park. Once he arrived at Joker Marchant Stadium, though, the look was no different.
"Once you start getting in a regular routine, the routine you'll be in during the season, that's when I really start trying to get things to click and get into my routine and get things right," Verlander said. "Not that I'm not working hard in the bullpen; I'm working very hard. It's just a little bit different."
Verlander described his feelings before the game as "anxious, excited -- hoping I can get that feel."
He wouldn't be able to claim a hitless performance Monday. Colby Rasmus, who wasn't with the Blue Jays when Verlander no-hit them last May, led off the second inning with a bloop single to short center field. Still, Verlander faced the minimum six batters, erasing Rasmus with a ground ball to second, which Brandon Inge flipped to shortstop Ramon Santiago to begin an inning-ending double play.
With that, Verlander spent the bottom of the inning in the dugout, jogged out to the bullpen to finish out his pitch count, ran the warning track to get his heart rate going, then cooled off.
This is truly where it begins. From here, he'll pitch every five days, and he'll prepare like it's a regular start.
"Basically, from here on out, it's just trying to get that feel as quick as I can in a game, and maintain it as long as I can," Verlander said. "And hopefully by the time spring ends, I'm to the point that I can stay in that groove for an entire game or six to seven innings and make minimal mistakes."