Verlander sails through first outing without a hitch
Right-hander expects to throw extra bullpen sessions before next start
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The zip was there on Justin Verlander's fastball, even if it was at Spring Training speed instead of midseason form.
The break on his curveball was there, judging from the frozen stance of Toronto's Anthony Gose as he watched it drop on the corner for a called third strike to lead off Tuesday's third inning.
The command was there from the outset, with all 11 of Verlander's first-inning pitches going for strikes before he walked Dan Johnson leading off the second.
Other than the delayed timetable for Verlander's first Grapefruit League start, there was very little to suggest he's coming off major surgery. And with 3 2/3 scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on Tuesday at Joker Marchant Stadium, Verlander pretty much put his rehab from core muscle surgery behind him.
"I felt good," Verlander said after his club's 3-2, 10-inning loss. "Felt great to get back out there, working some batters, throwing my offspeed for strikes, and gettting some swings-and-misses. I wasn't perfect, but it was good, in the direction I want to go in."
At the rate he has progressed, his progression behind the rest of the Tigers' rotation is a matter of a handful of pitches in his count. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer both had pitch counts of 60 the previous couple of days in their third starts. Verlander started out with a range of 50-55. It was higher than a first start normally would be, because he has thrown so many side sessions, including on Thursday, when his originally scheduled spring debut was rained out.
"He's not that far behind," said manager Brad Ausmus.
The expectation wasn't that he would get two outs into the fourth inning with that count. If not for a 10-pitch battle with Maicer Izturis, Verlander would've finished out the fourth at the low end of the pitch range.
Izturis battled back from an 0-2 hole to work the count full, then fouled off three consecutive fastballs before Verlander got him to fly out on a 94-mph offering.
Verlander needed just four pitches to fan Melky Cabrera, but with 52 pitches, he was done. He was not going to lobby for more.
"I actually liked getting into that battle and keep making pitches," Verlander said. "At that point, it really doesn't matter if I finish four or not because I've already gotten up and down that many times to finish that inning. It's not like it cost me an extra inning or anything. It didn't frustrate me at all."
Said Ausmus: "He was so efficient that he went a little bit longer in terms of innings than we thought he would, but it worked out fine. He looked good."
The one hit Verlander allowed was Cabrera's two-out single in the first, and it set up a good test. Like so many spring outings for him, Verlander used the opportunity to work out his pickoff moves. Then came Edwin Encarnacion's comebacker, which sent Verlander out of his follow-through to field and throw to first for the out.
"To be honest with you, I didn't even think about it," he said. "It was just reaction. I didn't feel anything."
Verlander's fastball ranged from 90-94 mph on the Joker Marchant Stadium radar reading. For his first spring start, that's where he would like to be. For the most part, the hitters on Toronto's split squad took them early, forcing him to locate. He didn't induce a swing and a miss until Jose Reyes' second at-bat with two outs in the third inning, and he whiffed twice on offspeed pitches.
The fouls balls came in abundance in the fourth, but by then, Verlander was finishing out the string. He was more concerned with how his mechanical adjustments felt than his health adjustment.
"I could feel a little bit of a difference," he said. "It's not right where I want it, but talking with [pitching coach] Jeff [Jones] after I came out, it's much improved. Still going to be working on it for the rest of spring.
"It seems like every day I've thrown it's gotten a little bit better and feeling a little more natural, so it was a real good sign to get out there on the mound and not worry about it and worry about getting batters out and for it still to be pretty good."
Verlander wants to work extra, throwing light sessions off the mound, before his next scheduled start. If the rotation stays on turn, that outing would come Sunday against the Nationals in Viera.
At this point, unless he feels a tweak, there's no reason why the Tigers wouldn't let him put in the work. That's his normalcy in Spring Training. Everything about his debut suggests he's back.
"I put in a lot of hard work after surgery to get to this point and be ready for the start of the season," he said. "It's nice to get back out there."