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Verlander begins quest to return to top form

Ace right-hander set to make seventh consecutive season-opening start for Tigers

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Verlander begins quest to return to top form play video for Verlander begins quest to return to top form

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Now Justin Verlander can admit it: He wanted this.

Verlander would've understood if Max Scherzer had gotten the nod to start on Opening Day, ending his streak of six consecutive starts for the opener, but he wanted it.

"It was kind of like the carrot in front of the horse," he said last week. "It gave me something to strive for."

Physically, he wanted to be ready for Opening Day after core muscle repair surgery in January. Beyond that, however, he wanted to pitch well enough to say he deserved it.

Opening Day, however, is just the start for him, literally and figuratively.

"I'm feeling like I have something to prove," he said. "I feel like I had something to prove in the postseason last year, and I feel like I've got something to prove this year."

Twenty shutout innings in Spring Training, with just eight hits and five walks allowed, and 17 batters fanned, proved to be the opening statement.

When Verlander went through his struggles last year, proving that even the nastiest pitcher in baseball can deal with being a mere mortal on the mound during what should be the prime of his career, he had the postseason as his deadline for getting where he wanted to be. He responded by shutting down Oakland in the American League Division Series, including a dominant performance in the fifth and deciding game.

He now says he wasn't right, not even in the postseason. He straightened out his mechanical issues well enough to be effective, but not to be at his best. He wants to erase the memory, muscular and mental, of 2013, even if many Major League pitchers would take it.

"I think I've proven what I wanted to prove in Spring Training, which is healthwise I'm fine. Now it's performance," he said. "I want to pitch like I'm supposed to pitch. I hold myself to a higher standard than I think anybody could, and I expect to pitch to that.

"I expect to pitch like I know I can. Last year I didn't. What caused that, I don't know. But there's no doubt in my mind if it was anything other than just me, if it was something else going on, if it was the surgery, if it was the injury, that's behind me. Now the only thing to worry about is pitching and getting back to being myself."

By "myself," he means the guy who fell a vote shy of back-to-back Cy Young Awards to go with an AL MVP honor. He means the guy who was nearly two full wins better in terms of WAR than any other Major League pitcher from 2011 through '12. He means the biting curveball, the pinpoint command, and the ability to get a crowd thinking about a possible no-hitter on any given summer evening after just an inning or two.

His off year wasn't as off as he might characterize it. He still finished seventh among Major League pitchers in WAR, above standouts such as Yu Darvish, Chris Sale, Jon Lester and Hisashi Iwakuma, eighth in innings pitched and tops in pitches thrown.

He wants to prove that last season was an outlier in a career still in its peak seasons, rather than the start of a trend. More than once this spring, he used the comparison of a fine wine, one that gets better with age. Considering he just turned 31 and has no history of arm injury in his career, the analogy doesn't seem necessary.

Then again, considering he has led the Majors in pitches thrown in each of the last three seasons, and has thrown nearly 1,500 pitches more than anyone else in baseball since his rookie season of 2006, maybe he should expect speculation about whether and when wear and tear will settle in.

The core muscle injury that was repaired in January wouldn't seem to fit that description, though he has said in recent weeks that he suspects it bothered him last season. While offseason training left him with what amounted to a sports hernia on his left side, surgery ended up finding lingering damage to the right side as well.

His recovery from such an issue, not just to get back to pitching but to pitch as well as he did this spring, was startling -- for some, at least.

"Did it amaze me? No, not really, based on everything I've been told about him," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He's an extremely hard worker. I've been around a number of pitchers who were like that. It's a little bit of a rarity. They have the stuff to be successful, but they have the work ethic to make them one of the greatest in the game. [Roger] Clemens was that way. [Roy] Halladay was that way, from what I heard."

All the while, Verlander was looking for the tweak that would work. He believes he found it watching video this spring and realizing his shoulders weren't level in his delivery last year, and they were in 2011 and '12.

It could have been the root that he couldn't find all last year, possibly injury related. It could be a minor issue that simply pushes him. Either way, the correction -- physically or mentally -- has gotten him rolling.

"I think it's about as close as I'm going to get," Verlander said. "I think it's past working on it. Now it's trying to repeat and keep where I'm at. …

"I don't know whether, coming off the surgery, it's going to take a little while to get back where I need to or not. We'll find out when the lights turn on."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["opening_day" ] }
{"event":["opening_day" ] }
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