Rainout ‘beneficial’ to Verlander’s progress

A tarp covers the field at Joker Marchant Stadium as wet weather makes its way across Florida on Thursday.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Thursday’s Detroit Tigers exhibition game was called because of rain, and the fans departing without having seen Justin Verlander pitch were disappointed.

But Verlander said the two-inning simulated game he threw in the batting cage might actually have been more "beneficial" to him than facing a Philadelphia Phillies split squad.

That’s because Verlander was able to put competition aside and focus on getting his upper-body pitching mechanics back to where they were in 2011 (24-5, 2.40 ERA) and 2012 (17-8, 2.64).

He noticed in studying video that his 2013 (13-12, 3.46) change in form might have been connected to favoring the core-muscle-group injury that eventually resulted in surgery on Jan. 9.

"There was a tilt in my shoulders," Verlander said before demonstrating. "My lead arm was too high and my (throwing) hand was not behind my head."

AROUND THE HORN

Asked if the injury, which wasn’t discovered until he was doing squats in the winter, resulted in him changing his mechanics, Verlander referred to the surgeon who operated on him, Dr. Bill Meyers.

"If you asked Dr. Meyers," Verlander said, "he’d probably say it’s a very good chance."

Verlander stressed that he has a dozen years of "muscle memory" to log into while attempting to erase what he became accustomed to during one year of the wrong mechanics.

"I know what I’m trying to get to," Verlander said. "And I’m making big strides right now."

Still, one thing doesn’t make sense about last year.

Did Verlander rediscover the mechanics of his Cy Young Award and MVP year in posting a 0.39 ERA and striking out 31 in 23 playoff innings?

"Probably not," he said.

Then how does he explain the abrupt improvement during the 2013 playoffs?

"I don’t know," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Just will."

Verlander threw 45 pitches Thursday to teammates Steve Lombardozzi and Bryan Holaday, and minor-league catchers John Murrian and James McCann.

"It was two innings of 10 up, 10 down, 10 strikeouts," Verlander said with a smile. "I felt pretty good."

After warming up with catcher Alex Avila, Verlander paused and placed his right hand (holding his cap) over his heart.

"I did the National Anthem and everything," he said.

Verlander said he expected his Grapefruit League debut will now come Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays in Lakeland. If he continues pitching every fifth day, he’ll remain on schedule to pitch Opening Day in Detroit.

However, Ausmus has reserved announcing whether that honor goes to Verlander or reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.

Ausmus has only said that Verlander, Scherzer and 2013 American League earned-run-average leader Anibal Sanchez (2.57 ERA) will pitch the first three games against the Kansas City Royals beginning March 31 at Comerica Park.

DIRKS IN GOOD SPIRITS

Left fielder Andy Dirks is scheduled to have back surgery Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla., and spoke about that and being out of action with the Tigers until mid-June.

"You can’t get down about it because I just remind myself that it could be a lot worse," Dirks said. "It really stinks, and when I got the news, I was pretty disappointed.

"There’s going to be situations that you just have to get through in life. The good news is, it’s fixable, and it’s fixable in a fairly short time frame considering it’s back surgery."

Dirks tried to play through it, but knew something was seriously wrong while playing in Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Braves.

"In the game in Orlando," Dirks said, "I was running for a fly ball and it just locked up. I was like, ‘Man, that’s a little more than it has been.’

"It was getting a lot better. I was playing on it, thinking nothing of it and then it got to the point where we figured we better get it looked at. Then we got the bad news."

Dirks will have a microdiscectomy performed by Dr. Thomas Tolli and then do nothing for three weeks before rehabilitating for three weeks in Lakeland. After that, he’s expected to begin baseball activity.

"You never think it’s going to be as bad as that," Dirks said. "We thought it was some kind of herniation in the disc, just from the symptoms.

"The good news, they can fix it and I can get back and play. The doctors seemed very optimistic about the procedure. He’s done a lot of them in the past and he said, ‘You’ll probably be back better than you were before.’"

ORTHOTIC ANSWER

Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias is making progress toward a return to action, and the orthotics inserted in his shoes are making the difference.

"Yesterday was an especially good day for him," Ausmus said. "It relieved some of the pressure in his shins."

Iglesias hasn’t played in a Grapefruit League game this month, and no timetable has been set for his return.

Ausmus has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want Iglesias to return until putting the stress reaction behind him and the inflammation is gone.

CROSBY, BELOW UPDATES

Ausmus gave updates on a pair of left-handers nursing elbow injuries.

"Casey Crosby will face live hitters (Friday) in Lakeland," said Ausmus, adding that there was nothing new to report on Duane Below.

Both have pitched briefly for the Tigers and have outside shots at earning a bullpen spot.