Justin Verlander doesn't like the way the Tigers have been written off after their 2008 disappointment. Key pieces of that 2006 American League champion club, he points out, are still there, as are some parts that raised expectations last year.
"I wouldn't call it an underdog [status]," Verlander said. "I'd call it more of a sleeping giant."
That was a month ago. He still feels that way now.
"Absolutely," he said Wednesday after his final Spring Training start. "I think we're going to be a team that's going to be reckoned with. I think inside baseball circles, I don't think we're going to sneak up on anybody. I think everybody knows that we have a good team. Just go out, play the game, have fun and let the talent take over from there."
If the Tigers are going to make that turnaround, Verlander will have to be a huge key. While Detroit has exciting new arms like Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello, nobody on the Tigers staff creates the same feeling on the mound that Verlander can when he's on his game. When he takes the mound, the team feels it has a strong chance to win.
"The things I've been working on have come to fruition," Verlander said. "Everything feels good."
He believes he has solved the great Detroit mystery that was his 17-loss season last year. It was a product, he said, of trying to throw too much at less than full strength in Spring Training and paying for it with a drop in velocity when the season began. He watched video of himself from past years, trying to pick up hints as to what, if anything, changed in his mechanics. He embraced the techniques and teachings of new pitching coach Rick Knapp, starting with an adjustment in his front foot placement when he delivers the ball. He decided to try to raise his arm angle with just a few Spring Training starts left, chancing the possibility that he could still be adjusting when the regular season begins, and managed to make the tweak stick in just two outings.
Even when Verlander fell out of form in his final spring start, manager Jim Leyland felt encouraged that Verlander didn't let him get "totally gone," as he put it. He demonstrated a point Leyland wants to make to all of his pitchers.
"We have the type of team that can come back," Leyland said, "so if you have a bad inning, don't just say, 'It's not my day.'"
The way Verlander looked when he had his adjustments working, he shouldn't have to worry about that often. His velocity, which seemed stuck around the mid-90s at times last season, is back at 97 mph now. He has better command of his curveball, dropping it in for strikes. The result is a pitcher who teammates believe looks more like the staff ace who won 35 games over his first two full big league seasons before struggling last year.
"The last few times I saw Verlander throw," Granderson said, "were very similar to '06 and '07."
They were also signs of a pitcher who's trying to go after hitters aggressively for quicker outs rather than searching at times for the perfect pitch. And that's an adjustment that has been longer in the making, and potentially huge if he can make it work.
"I'm excited about where I am now," Verlander said, "and hopefully what it equates to in the regular season."
If his first few years are any judge, how he pitches at the start of the year tends to define how his season follows. He pitched seven scoreless innings at Texas to start the 2006 season and went on to a campaign worthy of AL Rookie of the Year honors. He went 14 innings without allowing an earned run over his first few starts in 2007 and became an All-Star.
Then came his first career Opening Day assignment last year, when he tossed five scoreless innings before allowing two runs each in the sixth and seventh innings, resulting in a Tigers loss. He was relatively efficient in his Opening Day start, but his pitch counts ballooned over his next several starts -- 109 over 5 2/3 innings against the White Sox, then 104 over five innings two starts later.
By mid-May, Verlander was 1-7 with a 6.05 ERA, and the Tigers were trying to help him make adjustments. As both Verlander and Leyland said, making adjustments in midseason are tough to do.
Offseason and Spring Training adjustments, by contrast, are easier. Verlander feels he finally has them.
"I've worked hard," he said. "I'm ready to go. Get the season started."
DET: RHP Justin Verlander (11-17, 4.84 ERA in 2008)
The former All-Star's effort to bounce back from last year's shocking struggles begins here, with his second straight Opening Day assignment. His 1-7 record over the first month and a half to last season sent him reeling towards an American League high in losses and a spiral he couldn't seem to escape no matter what midseason adjustments he tried to make. He believes he has made the changes he needed, and he has the Spring Training performances to back it up -- one run allowed over a 19-inning stretch, including a 13-inning scoreless streak over his final three Spring Training starts before the Braves roughed him up in his finale for seven runs on nine hits over five innings.
Part of last year's struggles included an Aug. 11 loss to the Blue Jays at Comerica Park in his first career outing against Toronto, which hit him for six runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, the fourth straight loss in a season that included three different four-game losing streaks, two of them in the season's second half. The 26-year-old right-hander finished Spring Training with a 1-2 record and a 3.90 ERA in eight starts, allowing 14 hits over 27 1/3 innings.
TOR: RHP Roy Halladay (20-11, 2.78 ERA in 2008)
Halladay returns as the ace of a relatively young and inexperienced starting staff, taking the ball on Opening Day for the seventh year in a row. That streak is the longest such run for any pitcher in Toronto franchise history.
A year ago, Toronto's rotation boasted the best ERA in baseball, but the group is likely in store for some growing pains this season. With the loss of A.J. Burnett to the Yankees via free agency, and long-term arm injuries to right-handers Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, Halladay will be counted on to be the horse of the Jays' rotation once again.
Halladay finished as the runner-up to Cleveland's Cliff Lee in the balloting for the American League Cy Young Award in 2008, ending the campaign with a career-high 206 strikeouts and a league-leading nine complete games. Halladay compiled 246 innings -- the third season in a row Doc logged at least 220 innings -- and he led the AL with a 2.08 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio and a strikeout-to-walk rate of 5.28.
Halladay also notched 20 wins for the second time in his career, making him just the second pitcher in Blue Jays history (Roger Clemens) to win 20 or more games twice. During that impressive showing, Halladay did not encounter the Tigers, but he has handled Detroit well over his career. In 15 outings against his Opening Day opponent, Halladay has gone 11-2 with a crisp 1.93 ERA.
Pitching at Rogers Centre has also been something that Halladay has enjoyed over his career. Using his dancing and darting arsenal of sinkers and cutters, Halladay has fashioned a 73-28 mark at the Dome with a 3.28 ERA over 135 games. Last year, all Halladay did in Toronto was go 10-4 with a 2.78 ERA.
The fact that Verlander has never pitched at Rogers Centre gives him a small sample size, but he has allowed a .323 opposing average on artificial turf over his career and .312 in domes, compared with .249 on natural grass and .248 in open-air ballparks. ... The Tigers will work out Sunday at 5 p.m. ET at Rogers Centre, taking infield practice and some light BP to loosen up and prepare for the opener. ... Looking for a Tiger who can hit Roy Halladay? Placido Polanco is 5-for-11 in his career off the former Cy Young award winner.
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Official game notes
Tuesday: Tigers (RHP Edwin Jackson, 14-11, 4.42 in 2008) at Blue Jays (LHP David Purcey, 3-6, 5.54 in 2008), 7:07 p.m. ET
Wednesday: Tigers (RHP Zach Miner, 8-5, 4.27 in 2008) at Blue Jays (RHP Jesse Litsch, 13-9, 3.58 in 2008), 7:07 p.m. ET
Thursday: Tigers (RHP Rick Porcello, ML debut) at Blue Jays (LHP Ricky Romero, ML debut), 12:37 p.m. ET