Gage: Important day coming up for Verlander

Justin Verlander's injury initially wasn't going to cost him any time, but he's still waiting to return 2 1/2 weeks later.

Andrew Weber

Simulated game conditions aren’t a problem.

But simulated effectiveness would be.

Justin Verlander would have made two starts for the Tigers by now. Instead he’s made none because of a cramp in his right triceps that was actually a strain.

It is an injury that initially wasn’t going to cost him any time, but from which he’s still waiting to return 2 1/2 weeks later.

So the simulated game which Verlander is going to throw on Wednesday at PNC Park before the Tigers finish their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates will have more than simulated interest in it.

And is sure to have much more than simulated importance.

The Tigers need Verlander. They’re off to a good start without him, but never once considered any length of time with Kyle Lobstein as part of their starting rotation instead.

Not only do the Tigers need Verlander, of course, they need him to be good.

They need him to be sharp.

To bounce back from his inconsistencies of last year.

To be a reliable starter again.

All of the above, obviously — and the sooner the better.

But what Verlander needs to know — rather, what he hopes to find out with this throwing session — is how soon he will begin to get that chance.

Remember, he has never been on the disabled list before. Even if when he’s had offseason issues, such as his core muscle surgery of a year ago, his regular season already had started by now.

This is a pitcher, after all, who has made 49 March/April starts in his career. He’s accustomed to being on the mound from beginning to end, from spring to fall — so if the simulated game doesn’t go well, I imagine it will be with genuine disappointment that he reacts.

Understand who we’re talking about.

Verlander thrives on competing. He might not always win, but he needs to see for himself if he still has the stuff with which to win.

Knowing him, he no doubt already believes he does.

So this fortnight of being uncertain when he’ll pitch in a regular season game has to have gnawed at him.

He’s done a good job of concealing his frustration because, if nothing else, he’s an individual who accentuates the positive. But it’s time to pitch, right?

Last year by now, Verlander had already pitched three strong games. He was 1-1 with an ERA of 2.57, having started three of the Tigers’ first nine games — so there was already plenty of positive feedback.

His starts had lasted six, eight and seven innings respectively — and everything seemed to be in place for him to have a successful season.

With a 3-1 record in his first six starts, in fact, Verlander had arguably his best April ever. At the very least, it was the only April from which he’s ever emerged with three victories in four decisions.

What’s essential is to be aware of how hard Verlander has worked in recent years to get out of the gate quickly. He hadn’t been a good April starter for much of his career — what with a 5-11 record with a 5.45 ERA from 2008-2011.

But by adjusting his routine before spring training, he began to better prepare himself for the regular season.

In his last three Aprils, he’s 8-4 with a 2.24.

Oddly enough that’s led to an ineffective May for him the last two years — with a 6.41 ERA in 2013 and 5.54 last May — but again, knowing Verlander, he probably already has devised a plan on how to reverse that trend as well.

The point is he’s always been a horse — and horses paw the ground if they’re kept in the barn too long.

There has not been a year of Verlander’s major-league career that he hasn’t made at least two starts by this calendar date.

Not only does he need to pitch, the Tigers need to see him pitch. They’d like nothing more than to be quickly re-assured that the pitcher who went 5-1 in his last seven starts of 2014 is capable of picking up where he left off.

Verlander allowed fewer than two earned runs in only four of his starts last year. But three of those games occurred in his last six.

He’s no longer a kid, however, and because of the wear and tear on his arm over the years, there is considerable mystery about what kind of pitcher Verlander will be this season. 

Or, for that matter, from now on.

Are his years of winning 17-plus behind him? Or can he bounce back from averaging only 14 wins the last two years?

Can he still be one of the game’s premier pitchers? Or have his "merely good" years arrived?

We can’t start finding out the answers, of course, until he’s back on the mound.

And he can’t get back on the mound until he’s pitching in real conditions instead of simulated.

So getting past Wednesday in good shape is vital.