LAKELAND, Fla. — It’s called clearing the cobwebs.
Tigers ace Justin Verlander on Sunday began fine-tuning for the regular season, throwing two innings and allowing one run in a 5-5 tie with the Philadelphia Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium.
He threw his first sliders since the World Series — opting to stay away from a pitch that can be stressful to the elbow — and began gearing up his fastball from the low 90s to this accustomed 100 mph.
Verlander also discussed two related topics that he’s commented on before in recent months: exploring free agency after the 2014 season and possibly becoming the game’s first $200 million pitcher.
He “wasn’t upset” with a recent story on the Yahoo! Sports website, but wanted to clarify the tone of his comments.
Said Verlander: “The question was: ‘Do you want to be the first $200 million pitcher?’ I said, ‘Yes.’
“I did not think it came across as bad, but not as I envisioned. I do not want to be seen as a greedy guy. I wasn’t upset. I hope fans understand what I want to say.”
Seattle’s Felix Hernandez recently signed a $175 million deal, putting his pitching brethren such as Verlander, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays in position to reach the $200 million plateau.
And what of his pending free agency?
“Of course,” Verlander said, “every ballplayer is interested in free agency. And, yes, free agency is intriguing.
“But I love Detroit — I do. I could envision myself here.”
Verlander, 30, likely will be able to command a contract of seven or eight years, pushing him to 40 or the brink of it. He has two years remaining on a five-year, $80 million contract, and very likely could sign a long-term deal to remain a Tiger for life before it expires.
Or he could explore that “intriguing” possibility of free agency.
But, know this: He’s property of the Tigers for the next two seasons.
Verlander has won 124 games, one American League MVP and one AL Cy Young Award. He’s taken his performance to the highest level.
But the start of each season is no different. He pitches two innings the first time out, and looks to build his endurance up to nine innings and his velocity back up to 100 mph.
“The first game of the season (in Florida), I usually throw 90-91-92,” Verlander said. “I’d guess I was somewhere around there today.”
Verlander had a 1-2-3 first inning with a strikeout and a pair of grounders to second base.
Phillies slugger Ryan Howard led off the second inning with a double off the wall in right-center field, and a Freddy Galvis double scored a run.
“I just tried to go out there and get a feel for the ball, hit my spots and mix in my pitches,” said Verlander, adding that he threw “one bad changeup” that he hung for a hit and the first sliders since last season.
Verlander stressed that he always competes on the mound, but admitted that a “fine line” exists between trying to win and working on what is needed in these games.
He said the true “competitiveness” kicks in when the outings reach five or six innings in late March.
“But I approach these starts like a regular-season start,” said Verlander, who got into a zone listening to music in front of his locker, just as he always does.
“That’s just work for him . . . getting a couple innings under his belt,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s just getting himself ready.”
It’s all about gearing up for Opening Day, April 1 in Minneapolis against the Twins.
Then it’s time to throw 100 mph, perhaps go nine innings and compete to the end.