Two months and two days after having core muscle repair surgery, Justin Verlander returned to the mound in a game for the Detroit Tigers and got the kind of results a former MVP and Cy Young Award winner expects.
Verlander limited the Toronto Blue Jays to a Melky Cabrera single during 3 2/3 shutout innings, and struck out two while also walking a pair in his Grapefruit League debut during Tuesday’s 3-2 loss.
Asked if he was at or ahead of expectations at this point, Verlander said, "I always expect to be me."
He paused to smile and his eyes lit up.
"But it’s nice to be where I’m at now," Verlander added. "And there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be ready."
As in, ready for the season. Verlander is scheduled for three more spring training starts, and will continue ramping up toward the 100-pitch goal after throwing 52 pitches against Toronto. By pitching every fifth day, a turn will come up on March 31, which just happens to be Opening Day at Comerica Park against the Kansas City Royals.
Verlander has started six consecutive Opening Days, and only Jack Morris, with 11 straight from 1980 through 1990, has had more in a row for the Tigers.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has yet to choose between Verlander and 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer for the honor of starting the first game. However, should Verlander continue pitching like he did on Tuesday, he would be the favorite to receive the nod.
"He was so efficient that he ended up staying out there longer," said Ausmus, who was hoping for three innings from Verlander with a 55-pitch limit. "He looked good … He’s not that far behind."
Verlander’s first start was rained out Thursday, but he threw 45 pitches in a simulated game in the batting cages.
Did he think about coming back from the injury at all on the mound Tuesday?
"To be honest with you, I didn’t think of that," Verlander said.
"But it felt really good. I was happy to be back out there after all the (rehabilitation) work after surgery."
What is on his mind are his mechanics and curveball grip.
"It’s not right where I want it yet," Verlander said of his form. "But it’s much improved."
Verlander said that two weeks ago, while glancing at photos of himself pitching in recent years, he noticed a difference in his upper body mechanics that had caused an unwanted "tilt" to his motion.
He won the MVP and Cy Young in 2011 (24-5, 2.40 ERA) and finished second in Cy Young voting in 2012 (17-8, 2.64), but he dropped to 13-12, 3.46 in 2013.
Verlander got back to taking over games in last year’s playoffs, posting a 0.39 ERA and striking out 31 in 23 innings. And that’s where his rediscovered curveball grip came into play.
Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said, "The grip was something we found last year before the playoffs. He’d gotten away from that grip."
His curve is considered the best in the game when it’s on. And he’s got a grip on it once again.
As for the outing, Ausmus said, "(Verlander) was pleased with it. And Jonesy and I were pleased with it."
Jones nodded in agreement and smiled, adding, "That was real good."
"He threw better today," said Ausmus, who still wanted to see a better curve from Coke. "If he tightens up that (curve), he can be a tremendous asset."