Trust Verlander to right ship in 2013
Tigers righty battling rocky stretch, but Leyland confident in ace
Sometimes it comes down to trust, and that's what we saw Wednesday night -- late Wednesday night -- with Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers.
A one-hour and five-minute rain delay separated Verlander from his 13th out recorded and his 14th, and that's five minutes longer than manager Jim Leyland would typically allow his starter to rest before opting to pull the plug.
But as the tarp was pulled at Progressive Field, Verlander was adamant that he felt ready to return to the mound. The Tigers were clinging to a 9-5 lead on the Indians with none on and one out, and Verlander wanted to finish the fifth and be in line for the win. Leyland allowed it.
"All of our pitchers have been really good soldiers and done a lot for us during my time here," Leyland said. "That's just kind of a reward. Since I've been here in 2006, he's been our horse. As rough as the sledding was, he deserved the opportunity."
Leyland trusts his ace, and for good reason.
Verlander evolved into an MVP arm through a great deal of trial and error, learning to temper his emotions, corral his feisty fastball and sophisticate his secondary selections. He learned how to limit the big pitch-consuming innings and go deeper into games, and he learned how to maintain his delivery and his focus from game to game.
But the process of pitching never truly ends, not even for the most elite of arms. And so we've seen, in recent weeks, a slight reversion for Verlander, a few shaky starts that have been surprising if only for their sheer dearth of dominance.
Over his last three starts, including Wednesday night in Cleveland, Verlander has allowed 16 earned runs in just 12 2/3 innings, with the Indians (twice) and Rangers batting .373 with a 1.032 OPS off him. He's required an average of 23 pitches per inning in that span, an alarmingly inefficient output for a guy prone to blazing through batters.
"These spurts for me don't come very often," Verlander said after Wednesday's start, in which he allowed five runs on 10 hits in five innings, yet saw progress. "I've been able to thwart them the last two years. Last year, a little bit, but two years ago [the American League MVP Award and AL Cy Young Award-winning season] was just one of those years where this just didn't happen."
That it's happening now is not so much a cause for alarm as it is intrigue. Because this is where pitchers of Verlander's ilk separate themselves from the pack. The "spurts," as it were, happen to everybody at this level -- pitchers and hitters alike -- but not everybody has the wherewithal to correct them quickly.
"You find guys with track records -- guys with five, six, 10 years in the league -- and they usually end up where they're supposed to end up," Verlander said. "It's funny how they get there sometimes. You look at hitters and pitchers, and they'll go through bad stretches and through great stretches. Usually you end up where you're supposed to end up."
It says here that Verlander will end up where he should. Maybe not in line for another AL Cy Young Award, but probably not far off. Because while Verlander's April velocity dip was eye-catching, it was understandable after the added wear and tear of the 2012 postseason necessitated a revised offseason throwing program. The loss of a couple ticks on the radar gun clearly caught the eye of Verlander, too, because he began to deliberately try to uncork the pitch at top speeds to the detriment of his once-flawless command.
"I think that was part of it," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "We were tinkering a little bit too much in his delivery to try to get some velocity. His last outing in Texas, he threw some pitches 98, 99 [mph], so I think he was more at ease with that."
The results in Texas made Verlander uneasy, and so he changed his approach to the start in Cleveland. For one, he was given an added day of rest, buying him an extra bullpen session between starts. Verlander also swore off watching video of himself so as not to allow paralysis by analysis.
An analysis of Wednesday's outing is mixed. For two innings, Verlander was rough around the edges and roughed up. Leyland thought he looked "jittery," as it was certainly evident this was would be a highly scrutinized outing against a Tribe team Verlander had had some trouble with. The next two innings, though, it was vintage Verlander. Command, poise, presence. A 1-2-3, 10-pitch third and a struck-out side in the fourth. The fifth saw Verlander attempting to beat the clock, with rain looming, and it backfired, with Carlos Santana belting a two-run homer shortly before the tarp came out.
What was revealing was not so much the line in the box score as the lines uttered by Verlander afterward. He's his own harshest critic, after all, yet he felt encouraged by the way he returned after the rain and quickly retired two Tribe batters, as well as the way his command did not completely abandon him when the early results didn't go his way.
"I feel like my past experience allows me to come out of this quicker than I would before," Verlander said. "I've put in a lot of hard work the last eight years. My feel for my body is much better now than it was back then. Years ago, I don't know how I would have fixed this quickly."
Maybe Verlander won't fix it quite as quickly as he (and Tigers fans) would like. But just as the Tigers, as a unit, can generally be expected to live up to their track record and be a factor come the end of September, so, too, can Verlander be expected to be at or near the top of the class when all is said and done in 2013.
"Since I've managed the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander has been in my rotation, I feel pretty good when I come to the park when Justin Verlander's pitching," Leyland said. "I think that's the highest compliment you can pay to a pitcher."
Indeed, outright worry about the recent results seems unwarranted. Verlander has earned more than just cautious optimism that he'll put it back together. He's earned trust.