Tigers' Verlander has regained ace status after trying '08 campaign
Everything came very easy to the fireballing Verlander in his first two seasons
In '08, Verlander led the AL with 17 losses and had career highs in ERA and walks
This season he leads the AL with 245 strikeouts and 111.3 pitches per start
The transformation starts in the morning. In the shower Justin Verlander closes his eyes, runs through the lineup of that evening's opponent and visualizes "not just getting them out, but dominating them." On days that the Tigers' ace is to start, he blocks out the world. He won't return a call from his best friend. He has yet to speak before a start with Edwin Jackson, who occupies the adjacent locker. His pitching coach, Rick Knapp, won't initiate a conversation, speaking only when asked a question. Even then, "the answers are short and to the point," Knapp said. Outfielder Marcus Thames describes Verlander's look as one that says, "Don't talk to me today. I'm about to go out and shove it."
Verlander strides into the clubhouse by 4:30 p.m. for a 7 o'clock game, noise-cancellation headphones already on, with an iPod shuffling through hip hop and R&B, before graduating to rock and then hard rock in the final 45 minutes before he takes the field. Teammates scatter from his path, except those who are unfamiliar with the routine. On Aug. 19, a day after he had been traded to the Tigers from the Orioles, Aubrey Huff gave Verlander a friendly nod, a gesture that went unacknowledged. A concerned Huff sought assurance from reliever Bobby Seay that there wasn't any bad blood with his new teammate.
Even family isn't immune. Before a start in Baltimore on May 30, Verlander's father, Richard, and brother, Ben, were standing on the field, preparing to be interviewed by Fox Sports Detroit, when Justin emerged from the dugout, walked within a few feet of his family members, yet never bothered to even look at them. "He had this look on his face -- wow," Richard said. "I told him about it later, and he laughed. He never saw us."
It's not that Verlander used to be laid back before pitching, but he has made a concerted effort to be extremely focused, if not outright unpleasant. Said Richard Verlander, "My brother-in-law described the old routine as, 'Before Justin turned himself into a monster.' "
So with apologies to Ben & Jerry's, the young ace becomes Vermonster on start days. Verlander, 26, has established himself as a contender in a crowded American League Cy Young race. He leads the AL with 245 strikeouts and 111.3 pitches per start; his 16 wins are tied for third; and his 3.44 ERA ranks eighth. A classic power pitcher, he throws a high-90s fastball that gains extra hop as the game goes on, a 12-to-6 curve, a changeup and a recently developed slider, making for what Mariners first baseman Russell Branyan calls "one of the best combinations in the game."
But it's as baseball's top fireballing workhorse that Verlander has carved his niche. He is the rare pitcher who can sustain, or even increase, his considerable heat throughout a long start and, according to data from fangraphs.com, leads all AL starters with an average fastball velocity of 95.5 miles per hour.
Among his 20 quality starts, Verlander's signature performance of the season was at Fenway Park on Aug. 13. Following three straight Tigers losses, Verlander shut out the Red Sox for eight innings, with two at-bats succinctly demonstrating his arsenal. After shortstop Nick Green fouled off three fifth-inning fastballs of ascending velocity -- 95, 96, 97 -- Verlander dropped in an 82-mph curve that caused Green's knees to visibly buckle, after which catcher Gerald Laird turned to the home plate umpire and pronounced, "That's not fair." Twenty of Verlander's 85 fastballs were at least 99 mph, and his final two pitches, Nos. 122 and 123, both registered 100 mph in striking out Jason Bay. Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley exclaimed on Boston's television broadcast, "This guy has some devastation in his arm."
The Tigers understand the fickle existence of the young power pitcher, having seen firsthand the quick ascension to stardom and rapid descent into baseball oblivion of Denny McLain, Mark Fidrych and now, possibly, Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya -- who, respectively, are a two-time Cy Young Award winner, a Rookie of the Year and a pair of 100 mph arms who pitched the Tigers into the 2006 World Series. All four began declining precipitously in their mid-20s, though the injury-riddled Bonderman and Zumaya still have time to recapture their early glory.
That's why this season has been such a triumphant and welcome return to the top for Verlander, whose disastrous 2008 suggested a career arc similar to those of the three other starting pitchers who have been Rookies of the Year since 1998: teammate Dontrelle Willis, Kerry Wood and Jason Jennings, a trio of pitchers who, because of illness, injury and ineffectiveness, haven't come close to realizing their tantalizing early career potential.
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