LAKELAND, Fla. -- The early days of Spring Training have plenty of sights and sounds to warm a baseball fan's heart. The pop of a glove is up there on the list.
When the pop comes after a Justin Verlander delivery, it means even more this year. So when Verlander threw on an otherwise quiet Tuesday morning in the right-field corner at Joker Marchant Stadium, it meant a lot more than the noise level would suggest -- for himself and Tigers fans alike.
For a pitcher whose Spring Training plans and goals often border on compulsive, Verlander enters Spring Training without a script after core muscle surgery. After years of setting his schedule, he has accepted that he'll go as far and as fast as his body and his doctors tell him, rather than risk re-injury.
So far, every indication points towards him getting through this rehab process on time.
"I've just got to adjust, take it as it comes, do what I can when I can do it," Verlander said. "I'm just kind of treating this like last year. Last year was a grind, and I kept telling you guys every day when I realized things weren't right and I had a lot of work to do, my goal was I need to be ready for the playoffs. And I was able to achieve that. I got ready and was pitching to what I expected to pitch to in the playoffs.
"My goal now is the start of the season. Whether that's Game 1 or what, I don't know, but I intend to be ready."
Unless he somehow aggravates his injury, Verlander should be ready. Verlander actually threw off a mound on Monday, delivering 20 pitches in his first such session of the winter. Tuesday's throwing session simply confirmed that he had gotten through his mound session without issue.
"It's like with everything I've been doing after surgery. The first time I do it, I'm a little tentative. Once I realized I could put in a little more effort and a little more effort and still didn't feel anything, that's just kind of how the bullpen went," he said. "I would say it was slightly less effort than some of my bullpens in the past at this time, but toward the end I was getting on it pretty good and didn't feel a thing."
Verlander's surgery was actually more extensive than expected. When he injured himself doing squats in December, the strain was on the left side. He didn't think much of it until it hadn't healed a couple weeks later, and he contacted head athletic trainer Kevin Rand to set up an exam.
By the time all the opinions were in, including from specialist Dr. William Meyers, Verlander needed surgery on the right side as well. That injury, unlike the other side, didn't come from one event.
"When he went in there, he said it was almost as bad as my left side, and this wasn't from the injury that occurred when I was working out," Verlander said.
"That's why he said he had to fix the right side, too, because it was just a matter of time before that went, too. I think it was a blessing in disguise. He said I was probably losing strength from the transition from my legs to my midsection. So I'm happy. Obviously, you're never happy to go under the knife, but from what it sounds like, it could have been the luckiest thing that could have happened to me was to have it go when it did."
That attitude -- to take caution now in order to avoid a bad situation later -- is proving fortuitous for Verlander as well. Instead of trying to make up for lost time, he's listening to the medical staff.
"To be honest with you, I've been holding myself back," Verlander said. "It felt so good, I felt that there's a lot more things I can do, pushing and even getting more ahead of schedule. But I was in contact with Dr. Meyers up in Philly quite a bit and asking him: Should I push? And when can I push?
"I'm starting to get to that period now in my rehab where I can start to, as long as I feel OK, just kind of do more and more. Knock on wood, I haven't had any problems."
Verlander does not expect to be ready for the start of the Grapefruit League schedule in two weeks, but he doesn't sound concerned about that. He has made six starts in each of his last three Spring Trainings, but he believes he can be ready in five outings, his total from 2010.
"I think five's a good number of games to get my pitch count up to where it needs to be," Verlander said. "If we can do that, great. We drew up a plan for that. We also drew up a plan for if I can't do them. It's one of those things that you don't know how it's going to go until you do it. I think [Monday] was a great sign with how my legs and everything felt."