DETROIT – The sheriff was back in town. Justin Verlander took the mound at Comerica Park on Monday, restoring law and order to his strike zone and the base paths.
Take a deep breath, Tigers fans. Your world — or at least the land of your ace — is back to normal.
Verlander struck out a season-high 13 and limited the Pittsburgh Pirates to three runs on seven hits over seven innings of a 6-5 win.
Normally, that’s just another game for the 2011 American League MVP — and not even one of his better ones. But after the last three starts, it signified an important return to normalcy.
Since he began making adjustments in order to get his velocity back on the 100 mph doorstep, Verlander went into a rare funk. He had an 11.37 ERA with 22 hits and eight walks allowed in his last three starts, which totaled only 12 2/3 innings.
He was up to 99 mph again — while giving up hits and runs at an alarming rate.
Well, he shut off the alarm in this game. Not that Verlander was satisfied, but at least he put the panic of fans and reporters to rest.
“It’s kind of hard not to hear when it’s everywhere,” Verlander said afterward.
He also understands that the negative buzz “comes with the territory” when so much is expected.
“When you are one of the faces of baseball, people are going to talk about you more than somebody else,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “This is a fickle business. You’re a hero today and a bum tomorrow.”
Verlander accepts that and the public consternation that comes when he looks human for a few starts.
“I expect the bar to be high,” he said. “That’s where I set it myself.”
But how an athlete handles the sky-is-falling fear of others matters, too.
Verlander said that what he hears doesn’t matter to him. He knows what he has, what he needs to do and has every confidence that he’ll correct any flaws required to once again push perfection.
“If everyone wants to pile on . . . that’s where sports are today,” Verlander conceded. “But I can deal with it.”
He deals with it in bullpen sessions and side work with Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones between starts. Verlander, now happy with his velocity, has made fastball command and an improved curveball his missions.
“This was another step forward with the breaking ball,” Verlander said. “It’s the best it’s been all year. And the fastball command is not where I wanted, but it was better.”
Verlander said the strikeouts were proof of the improved curve.
After warming up Verlander, Tigers catcher Brayan Pena said he told his ace, “The curveball’s looking pretty good today. Let’s go with it.”
And they did, even more often late in the game, according to Leyland.
“He’s nasty, man,” Pena added.
Leyland said Verlander also took advantage of the Pirates’ aggressive game plan against him by putting them off balance with more changeups.
“His tunnel vision was pretty good,” Leyland said. “He was locked in pretty good today from the start.”
Even when Verlander got upset with the strike zone of home plate umpire Tony Randazzo and openly fretted on the mound, he handled it the right way. He approached Randazzo after the inning and had an amiable conversation.
Verlander said he told Randazzo, “I didn’t say anything to you. I’m not trying to show you up.”
And they moved on without any lingering animosity.
Verlander noted that pitchers are taught from Little League not to show emotion on pitch calls before adding, “But that’s easier said than done.”
He fully realizes he tends to be emotional.
“I know umpires get frustrated with me at times,” he said.
However, just as he knows how to work on fastball command and his curve, he has learned how to deal with umpires.
When your limitations are understood, you can move forward.
That’s what Verlander did here on a drizzly Memorial Day.