LAKELAND, Fla. -- Justin Verlander threw pitch No. 8 of his first session against live hitters this spring on Monday and asked catcher Bryan Holaday and pitching coach Jeff Jones whether it was a ball or a strike. He fired his 12th pitch and cursed himself, unhappy with the way he threw it.
In other words, Verlander was back.
He wasn't worried about the core muscle injury that required offseason surgery, not even when he slipped on the mound trying to throw a curveball. He was worried about the quality of the pitches. He wasn't happy with some of them, but he's never happy with them the first time he faces hitters in the spring.
"It went pretty well," Verlander said of his 48-pitch session. "Just a lot of rust to knock off, per norm your first time out against hitters. It was pretty sporadic and a little all over the place. Offspeed stuff wasn't great, but that's normal."
In general, nothing was great according to him. And for him, that's normal. His frustration at this point has become an expectation, and no delay in his throwing program this winter while recovering from surgery was going to get him to let up on himself.
"I don't expect to be frustrated," Verlander said, "but the reason I'm frustrated is, I don't ever expect to be off. Even though I know that's happened every year at this point in time, even though I know that, I think maybe this is the year that it'll be perfect. It never is."
The only way he possibly let up was on the pitch count, and he did that by actually sticking to it. Verlander had surpassed his pitch count throughout his bullpen sessions, sometimes only by one pitch. He had a range of 45-50 pitches for Monday's workout.
Unlike every other live batting practice session session this week, he was on the mound at Joker Marchant Stadium, since he was the only pitcher throwing. He had a small crowd watching in the stands as he faced outfield prospect Daniel Fields and Minor League catcher Craig Albernaz, and he admitted to having a little adrenaline building as he went along.
"It sent me right back to pitching in Lakeland with 30 people in the stands," he said, referring to his days in the Florida State League in 2005.
Verlander will throw another live BP session on Thursday. If that goes well, he'll slot into the rotation from there, though manager Brad Ausmus and Jones said no date has been decided for his first start.
The goal with Verlander is to get him five Spring Training starts, which should allow him to stretch his pitch count enough to be ready for the season. Ausmus said he'd like to get Verlander ready for close to 100 pitches by the start of the season, which would be enough for the manager to feel comfortable giving Verlander the nod on Opening Day.
Who will start the season opener hasn't been decided, but Ausmus said Verlander is under consideration with Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. If Verlander gets the start for the March 31 meeting with the Royals, it would mark his seventh consecutive Opening Day assignment, something Ausmus said would be a consideration.
"If he can only go 75 pitches, that's a dangerous area to be in," Ausmus said, " because he's the type of pitcher, if he were to go out there and guys are fouling pitches off, he could be at 75 after five innings. … We'd hope he'd be closer to 100, but we'll see how it progresses."