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With Scherzer Gone and Tigers' Time Running Out, Pressure Is on Justin Verlander

Published by Bleacher Report on Tue, 17 Mar 2015

LAKELAND, FloridaJustin Verlander knows all eyes are on him this season. And not just because many of those eyes are hoping to catch a glimpse of Kate Upton.No, with Max Scherzer long gone and the Detroit Tigers still oh-fer when it comes to World Series titles under owner Mike Ilitch, the clock is ticking loudly. The Tigers are getting older. Ilitch, 85, is getting older.And so is Verlander, now 32 and coming off of his worst season since 2008.For the Tigers to win, Verlander absolutely must re-establish himself as the pitcher both he and they think he is.Yet his velocity is down, and questions are up.It's strange listening to people talk, like Verlander suddenly is..."Old news'" he says, grinning while finishing the sentence.Well, that or, at the very least, moving toward becoming a, gulp, finesse pitcher."Last year, there were a couple of starts in a row where I definitely felt good and hit 98 (mph)," Verlander says. "Hopefully this year I feel good and I'm back there."Maybe he will be.Probably he won't be.There comes a time in every flamethrower's lifewell, every flamethrower not named Nolan Ryanwhen the zip on his fastball throttles down and he must adjust.It is not always pleasant.For survival, it almost always is mandatory.And for a Tigers team beginning to see what once was a huge window of opportunity start to slide shut, every potential route to October includes Verlander returning to form. The form that includes eight consecutive seasons of working 200 or more innings, two no-hitters (2007 and 2011) and winning both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards in '11.How crossed did this Tiger's stripes become last summer'His 4.54 ERA and 1.40 WHIP were his worst since 2008. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings, 6.95, was a career-low. And his average fastball velocity of 93.1 was nearly 3 mph lower than his 95.6 average in 2009, according to FanGraphs.Verlander's take is that he was coming off of core muscle surgery performed in January, 2014, and, as such, was playing from behind most of the season because his winter workout schedule was forcibly altered.Logical, yes.But this also is a pitcher whose ERA last summer was the eighth-worst in the majors among starters with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title."This game isn't easy," Verlander says. "I knew that after 2008. Everything came easy up to that point."Last year, everything was a grind mentally and physically. I was able to get through it and, hopefully, get through to the other side better for it."The Tigers listen to all of the Monday morning quarterbacking surrounding Verlander's dip in velocity, and they think much of it is overly alarmist."It's not like he's a thumber," manager Brad Ausmus says, referring to finesse pitchers who rely on their thumbs to spin the ball."He's such a competitor, I don't ever expect to see anything like that again," says pitching coach Jeff Jones, referring to the ignominy of the eighth-worst ERA in the game. "I think the core surgery slowed him down and then led to some shoulder issues."He wasn't himself."Says catcher Alex Avila: "He throws 90 to 96. That's pretty damn hard. And the thing is, what he learned from early in his career is how to pitch. There isn't a need for him to change and become a soft-tosser. Better pitch location, and he's healthy now."Verlander, who has never been on the disabled list, actually missed one start last August with shoulder soreness. That's how down and out he was.Looking back now, Verlander says he realizes that the surgery set him back much more than he allowed at this time last year."I think so," he says. "I think you can't ever allow yourself to think, 'Oh, I had surgery, I'm not going to be able to perform.'"But after talking to therapists, they made me aware of how much that impacts the rest of your body."And his sore shoulder was a direct result of that'"I hope so," he says.So far, so good this spring. He's strong. He's sharp. He's focused. His curveball is a point of emphasis right now, and he thinks it's much better than it was a year ago. In his early spring starts, his fastball is sitting at 92, 93 mph, and he's mostly pitching between 90 and 94 mph.Not exactly the 99 or 100 of his youth, but you bet Verlander very quietly is amping up to stick a fastball in the ribs of all of the doubters."There is a chip on my shoulder," he says. "You definitely don't want to dwell on things that don't go your way, but when you have a will and you want to be the best, it puts a little spur on your side, or whatever it may be, for extra motivation."Scherzer is gone, but the Tigers still have another Cy Young winner in their midst, lefty David Price (2012). In its own way, each serves as inspiration for Verlander: The void left by Scherzer, and the work of Price."I love watching him pound the zone," Verlander says of Price. "He pounds the zone constantly, puts guys on the defensive and makes them be aggressive. That's fun to watch."Last year, I kind of got away from that a little bit. And I'd like to get back to it."Since his Rookie of the Year season in 2006, the Tigers' trust in Verlander has been both rewarded in good times and reaffirmed in bad.That rocky '08 season that saw him go 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA'He roared back in '09 to go 19-9 with a 3.45 ERA. He led the league in strikeouts (269), innings pitched (240) and starts (35). One thing the Tigers know: Do not underestimate this guy."I think he's going to have a big year, I really do," Jones says. "He's a very proud guy. And the fact that, by his standard, he had a subpar year, I really think this year is going to be big."Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.Follow Scott on Twitterand talk baseball.
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