Avila has impressed Verlander all year

Avila has impressed Verlander all year

Avila has impressed Verlander all year
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander was among the most vocal pitchers during Spring Training in his praise of young catcher Alex Avila, who faced the challenge of taking over regular catching duties with Victor Martinez over his shoulder.

Three months later, Avila and Verlander look more and more like an All-Star battery and a tandem in sync, as Verlander continues one of the best seasons by an American League pitcher this year.

Avila has caught Verlander for all but one of his 15 starts this year. Opponents are batting just .176 off Verlander in those outings, and just .209 on balls put in play, with 99 strikeouts out of 399 plate appearances.

Manager Jim Leyland doesn't believe in personal catchers, but there's little chance he's going to split them up. With right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez set to start opposite Verlander on Sunday at Colorado, they'll almost certainly be paired up again.

As Verlander talked with reporters Wednesday about his no-hit bid the night before, he was effusive in his praise of Avila.

"It's pretty tough to be on the exact same page as a catcher, but as far as a rapport, I feel really comfortable with him back there," Verlander said. "I think the way you earn respect is with hard work. The strides that he's made as a catcher, a very young catcher -- not just young in age, but young in experience behind the plate -- I think shows how hard he works for us to be a good catcher."

It's a different twist for Verlander, who spent most of his Major League career until now working with veteran catchers. He came up while Ivan Rodriguez was an All-Star backstop and a commanding presence behind the plate. When Gerald Laird came over in 2009, he and Verlander developed a rapport shaped by equally strong wills.

With Avila, Verlander said, the pitchers try to let him know about points he can improve. When they do, he does it. He used Avila's progress blocking balls in the dirt as an example.

"Last year and I think early this year, he was having trouble, and he knew that," Verlander said. "I talked to him a little bit, and he said he was working on it, and that's all you need to say. He's been tremendous. And you can tell he works his tail off. And the results, almost immediately after he started working on it, it was a night-and-day difference."

As far as being together on pitch calling, he said, Avila does the best with a challenging job.

"I always shake everybody off," Verlander said. "Alex makes fun of me. There were a couple times last night he threw down a sign, I shook him off and just kept shaking back to the same sign."

That said, Verlander added, they've found themselves making the same observations about hitters.

"Yesterday we were pretty much on the same page," Verlander said. "There was a batter that our game plan was not to throw changeups to him. I wasn't going to throw him changeups. But right out of the gate, my changeup was really good, and in the same conversation after the game, he said, 'Hey, we weren't goiing to throw changeups to this guy, but your changeup was really good.'"

For Avila, the season has been quite an experience.

"The way he's been throwing this year is by far the best I've seen," Avila said. "One of the best performances I've seen out of a pitcher in a year, and I was just a little kid, is when Pedro Martinez won the Cy Young with Boston. That was unbelieveable. He had an unbelievable year. But as far as getting to catch [Verlander] every five days, it's been a piece of cake."