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Verlander focused solely on batters

Verlander focused solely on batters

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Competitiveness is wherever Justin Verlander finds it. This is the guy who turned pitchers' fielding practice this Spring Training into a daily challenge with manager Jim Leyland to try to hit a ground ball past him. The same guy turns a round of golf into a challenge.

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He doesn't have to try hard to find a competition. Just don't ask him to find it from the other guy on the mound on Opening Day come Monday.

Verlander has gotten to know Kansas City's Zack Greinke a little bit the past few years. He talked with him during All-Star Game festivities last year. But that's not the point. To Verlander, it's never about who's pitching for the other team. It's about who's hitting for them. Never mind that Greinke beat out Verlander and Seattle's Felix Hernandez for the American League Cy Young Award.

He doesn't necessarily care about out-pitching Greinke, whom he hasn't opposed in the same contest since 2007. He wants to win the game. If he does, it'll be the first time in his third career Opening Day start.

"I'm excited," Verlander said, "but it's the same thing we've talked about for years. It doesn't matter who's pitching for the other team."

He can take the same mentality Monday. For fans and everyone else, it's a meeting of the AL Central pitching titans. The teams behind them might be different, but their pitching makes it remarkably close, and likely remarkably stingy.

If there was any question about what Verlander means to the Tigers, it was answered as soon as Verlander put ink to paper on his five-year, $80 million contract extension. The Tigers won three times out of their final nine games, and Verlander won two of them. His performance in Game 162 helped ensure the Tigers would force a division tiebreaker game two days later at Minnesota.

The Tigers finished nine games over .500 last year. Verlander, at 19-9, finished 10 games over. Add in his no-decisions, and the Tigers were 23-12 in his starts.

"He's one of the best, no question about that," Leyland said. "I don't call him a young pitcher anymore. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. He's got as good of stuff as any of them. And the more he matures and learns a little more pitchability, there's no telling what he can do. ... He's a tremendous, unbelievable talent."

Detroit Tigers
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 CF Austin Jackson
2 LF Johnny Damon
3 RF Magglio Ordonez
4 1B Miguel Cabrera
5 DH Carlos Guillen
6 3B Brandon Inge
7 C Gerald Laird
8 2B Scott Sizemore
9 SS Adam Everett
Projected rotation
1 RHP Justin Verlander
2 RHP Rick Porcello
3 RHP Max Scherzer
4 RHP Jeremy Bonderman
5 LHP Dontrelle Willis
Projected bullpen
CL RHP Jose Valverde
SU RHP Ryan Perry
SU RHP Joel Zumaya
MI LHP Phil Coke
MI LHP Fu-Te Ni
MI RHP Eddie Bonine
MI LHP Brad Thomas
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

They seemed to play with a different energy when Verlander took the mound, like they knew this was a game in which they had a chance to be great. Instead of not doing much offensively, they sometimes seemed to do more. The two glaring exceptions were the 6-2 loss at the Metrodome on Sept. 19, in which a fly ball lost in the lights helped lead to a Twins rally, and a 5-1 loss to Robinson Tejeda and the Royals on Sept. 9.

If they were ever going to have a different energy, the opener would be a big one to do it. They never really knocked around Greinke; even the one loss he took against them last July was a 3-1 affair that included a run-scoring ground out and a sacrifice fly following a bunt single in which Greinke seemed to slip.

Verlander was watching many of those outings from his usual post along the dugout railing.

"Obviously he's got great stuff," Verlander said, "but he controlled the ball, controlled the pace of the game and was able to keep guys off-balance really well. He mixed in his slider and all his pitches. He was pitching. That's what it's called."

They might not need much to support Verlander, which is good, because they can't expect to get much. All the buzz about Detroit's new-look offense might be quiet until after the opener.

In terms of the team, it becomes the same question as always: How important is it for the Tigers to get off to a good start?

The answer can be found in the schedule. Detroit plays its first nine games against Kansas City and Cleveland, then goes on a stretch of 27 out of 30 games against teams that finished .500 or better last season. That includes two West Coast trips -- one of them an 11-day, 11-game trek -- two trips to Seattle, two series against Minnesota and a homestand against the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox.

If the Tigers can match up their best pitcher against the Royals and their best pitcher and win, it'll be a good first step for their chances at a fast start. If Verlander can pitch strong along the way, it'll mean a lot for his chances at a follow-up season, too.

Still, he isn't considering it a must-win by any stretch.

"I think we realized last year the importance of every single game, especially at the beginning of the season," Verlander said. "After that stretch, we have 140 games left. That's a long way to go. I don't think we've ever been a team that particularly starts out hot. Some teams do. Some teams don't. Kansas City, the last three or four years, has always started out real hot and kind of fallen off the pace a little bit. It's kind of funny how teams do stuff like that, but I don't think we've traditionally been a team that does that except for 2006."

This would be a good year to do that. Opening Day would be a great place to start. Verlander might not be looking for a competition against Greinke, but on the scoreboard, he's got it.

"Once you're on the mound, it's the same as always: Pitcher vs. batter," Verlander said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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