By Ashley Dunkak
It would have been difficult for Justin Verlander to look worse Sunday than he did his previous outing, when he lasted just five innings – after needing 44 pitches to get the first three outs – and allowed five runs, three of them earned.
Verlander did not merely look better on Sunday, though. He looked almost as good as his old reputation, going seven innings without allowing a single run. He looked dominant.
“It looked a lot like his old self,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s been kind of fighting that. He finds it, something like that will happen, he gets a good feeling, and then he loses it. That’s kind of been the season. As long he keeps getting back to that feeling, for him to remember that, remember those mechanics, remember that release point …”
Whether Verlander can ever repeat the accomplishments of 2011 and 2012 is questionable at best. If nothing else, though, the results Sunday were as good as anyone could ask.
“As the game went on, he just got better and better and got in a better rhythm and really had good command of his fastball later in the game,” Avila said. “It was unfortunate they were fouling off a ton of pitches, putting his pitch count up there, but he did a good job in the middle of those games, those middle innings, to be able to kind of manage that and give us a strong outing.”
Does all that mean that Verlander is back to form, back to the sub-3.00 pitcher who destroyed teams just last year and the year before? Verlander laughed off the inquiry before circumventing it.
“People can say and guess and do whatever they want, but I feel like I felt really good today and was definitely a positive sign, especially with the guy there at third with one out, able to reach back and felt like free and easy,” Verlander said. “I had good stuff.”
Verlander and Tigers manager Jim Leyland attributed the hurler’s solid day to some in-game tweaks.
“Early on he was a little bit straight up and not getting downhill real good, but as the game went on he made the adjustment and started getting the ball down better,” Leyland said. “He was getting the ball up a little bit, and that’s why they were fouling so many pitches off, which got his pitch count up a little bit high too early.”
Overall, though, Leyland said he thought Verlander pitched a terrific game.
Verlander was not that effusive, but he said that around halfway through his start, things started to click.
“It felt great,” Verlander said. “It’s just trying to find it and have it click. There were actually a few adjustments I made today during the game. One of the things I’ve been working on in the bullpen, which I don’t really want to get into too much, but in game, threw one pitch and kind of felt something click, and it felt right, so then I, from there on, tried to focus on that and what that felt like and just build upon that, and that was probably about the third or fourth inning that I felt that.”
Leyland has said several times this season that he thinks Verlander just needs to get back to the basics, go out there and use his stuff and pitch with the arrogance – Leyland’s word – that has made Verlander the pitcher he is. Verlander is reluctant to term it quite that way, and so apparently was Avila, but they both know what the skipper meant, and they agree.
Whether Verlander’s mechanical tweaks prove to be long-lasting solutions or not, confidence is a must, as it is for all pitchers.
“What the pitcher is on the mound, he’s got to have a presence out there, and it’ll definitely carry over into the dugout and into the field when you see your guy going out there and he definitely has a mound presence,” Avila said. “That’s what’s made him good.
“When he’s out there, he’s not a nice guy,” Avila added. “He wants to beat the heck out of you. He needs to have that, and it rubs off.”