LAKELAND, Fla. -- Justin Verlander had to crack a smile as Odubel Herrera fidgeted around the batter's box. Even in Spring Training, the Phillies' center fielder is deliberate at the plate.

Verlander waited for Herrera to dig in, then tried to jam him with a fastball inside, hitting 97 mph on the radar gun at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium. The Tigers right-hander came back with a nasty slider and watched Herrera lunge to foul it off.

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The cat-and-mouse game followed for the back half of the seven-pitch plate appearance on Wednesday, ending in a third-inning walk. Herrera flipped his bat to the edge of the Phillies' dugout after taking ball four. Verlander said he didn't see that but chuckled later.

"It was just kind of funny, especially the one he fouled off," Verlander said. "It was just one of those ABs."

At age 34, with his 12th Major League season and ninth Opening Day start awaiting him, Verlander can chuckle. He's back at the top of his game, coming off a season in which he just missed out on his second American League Cy Young Award and rivaled numbers from his AL MVP season of 2011. He's engaged to supermodel Kate Upton, with whom he owns two dogs and a new Beverly Hills home that was featured in Architectural Digest magazine.

Video: Verlander on his great 2016 season, staying healthy

At the same time, the glare from the mound shows Verlander is the same intense pitcher around whom the Tigers have built their staffs for more than a decade; he has just evolved. Verlander's last Spring Training outing saw him gear up his fastball to regular-season velocity and throw some bite into his slider.

"The last four or five starts, I've been focusing on my slider a lot," Verlander said.

Verlander entered Spring Training coming off a dominant three-month, 18-start stretch last year in which he posted a 9-3 record and a 1.98 ERA, allowing 81 hits and striking out 147 over 123 innings. He wants to stretch that out and avoid the early-season struggles that dogged him not only last year but at many points in his career.

"I wanted to be a little further along than I was at this point last year," Verlander said. "I think the ball coming out of my hand better was a point of emphasis. It got a lot better as the season went along last year, so I wanted to pick back up close to where I was."

The slider was a big part of that. It's also an example of Verlander evolving as a pitcher. It was his third pitch at best when he no-hit the Blue Jays in 2011, but it was arguably his most dangerous weapon to hitters once he figured it out last year.

Video: PHI@DET: Verlander on his preparation this spring

"It changed last year; he shortened it," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "It became more of a small slider with a little more velocity. He really tried to replicate the fastball delivery so that he wouldn't tip off the hitter."

The average velocity on Verlander's slider rose from 85 mph last April to 88 in May, just under 90 in August, then around 91 down the stretch, according to advanced pitch tracking. Hitters, in turn, batted just .158 against the slider last year, 46 points lower than his career mark.

Like the pitch, the pitcher has evolved but still has some bite.