Curveball key to Verlander's win in opener

Curveball key to Verlander's win in opener

CHICAGO -- Justin Verlander escaped a bases-loaded jam in his opening inning on Friday night with a 96-mph fastball past Tyler Flowers for a called third strike, which was a big deal for a pitcher whose velocity has been scrutinized all season.

The pitch that set it up, however, was an 80-mph curveball Verlander dropped into the strike zone to put him ahead of the count. In the big picture of Verlander's arsenal, that breaking ball was just as big of a deal.

"It definitely can throw guys off some of the other pitches," Verlander said afterwards. "It's always been a big pitch for me. It's nice to be able to execute it."

When Verlander was dominating hitters the previous few years, the curveball used to be a pretty good early-inning barometer of how Verlander would fare. If he was spotting the curveball, hitters were usually in trouble. If he wasn't, they at least had a fighting chance to sit on the fastball, whether it was mid-90s or better.

The numbers from STATS, Inc. show the difference this season. Verlander threw his curveball in the strike 45.7 percent of the time in 2011, 47.9 percent in 2012 and 50.9 last season. That rate is down to 43 percent this season. Considering the rate of swings and misses is about the same, it's the called strike that seems to be the difference.

That said, hitters are doing more damage with the pitch, as well, batting .254 off of it compared with .177 last year, .129 in 2012 and .136 in 2011.

Verlander threw 21 curveballs on Friday, second only to his fastball and threw 12 for strikes -- five of them called. He gave up two hits using it, but both were singles. It was encouraging for Verlander.

"My curveball was good, probably the best it's been in a while," Verlander said. "I was able to throw it for strikes when I wanted, was able to throw it as a chase pitch when I wanted. It had a good break to it. I got some big outs with it. Gave up a couple hits with it, but they weren't sharp hits."

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.