Verlander's curveball can make the difference

BY foxsports • July 31, 2013

DETROIT – Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander has shown signs of regaining his dominance at times this season. But I never came away from those games believing he had turned the corner.

Now I think he has.

It all has to do with his curveball – the best in the game until recently – regaining its knee-buckling break for him in Wednesday’s outing.

That, in turn, allowed Verlander to once again feast on right-handed hitters, who had been eating him alive this season.

Verlander escaped a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in the first inning with one run. And the Washington Nationals didn’t score another run in his six-inning stint, as Detroit won its fifth straight game, 11-1.

Jayson Werth hit a sacrifice fly for the first out in the first. Then Verlander got No. 5 hitter Adam LaRoche to go down swinging on a late-breaking curve, and Ian Desmond hit into a fielder’s choice to end the threat.

“It was huge,” Verlander said of the LaRoche whiff. “You go down by two or three runs, and put your offense behind the eight ball. One run’s not a big deal.”

Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said it was Verlander’s most important pitch of the day. It was the key to not only the inning, but the game. The Nationals had to be hoping to see the flatter Verlander curve that he’d had in many games, but now they knew his out-pitch was alive and well. He planted a seed in their minds with that pitch that allowed him to do the most important thing a pitcher must accomplish: keep hitters off balance.

“His curve today was very, very good,” Jones said.

Was it the vintage Verlander “yellow hammer” curve?

“It was,” Jones said.

Tigers radio analyst Jim Price uses that old baseball slang term for a nasty curve, and counted six “yellow hammers” for Verlander in this game.

“The curveball was better and that’s a good sign,” Verlander said.

That’s because it makes his 94-96 mph fastball that much more effective because hitters can’t sit on it. And as good as his slider and changeup are, they don’t compare to his “yellow hammer” as the pitch that can be the difference between good and great.

Verlander struck fear into most right-handed hitters in recent years. They batted .215 against him in 2011, when he was the American League’s MVP and Cy Young Award winner. They hit .222 off him in 2012, when he finished second in Cy Young voting.

But righties were closing in on .300 against Verlander after 22 starts this season, hitting .289, and that’s downright preposterous. On Wednesday, the Nationals, who have top-flight righties in Ryan Zimmerman, Werth and Desmond, went 0-for-10 against Verlander.

I asked Verlander for the main reason for his success against righties in this game.

“It was my curveball,” Verlander said. “It was sharp.”

Jones said he began to get the quality curve back in his last start – the one in which he gave up seven runs on 11 hits in a six-inning defeat.  The coach and star pitcher have been “tinkering” all season to get him back to where he needs to be, toiling together in bullpen sessions.

“I don’t think there’s a pitcher in baseball who has worked as hard as me to make things right,” Verlander said. “I’ve given 115 percent.”

They will be working on fastball command before his next start.  He walked five in the game – matching his high for the season -- largely because that command was lacking.

“My fastball, obviously, was pretty erratic,” said Verlander. “But it had good life on it.”

Verlander struck out six for one per inning, and allowed only four hits – all singles. Hitters were not squaring up on the ball against him.

He’s 11-8 with a 3.88 ERA. That’s hardly disastrous, but it’s caused plenty of questions and proved disconcerting for Tigers fans. The Detroit News ran an editorial cartoon Sunday of Verlander that had this thought bubble: “Dang! I’m mortal!”

But Verlander, 30, doesn’t want to pitch like a mere mortal. His expectations are beyond that. 

He’s been searching all season to be the superstar he’s been rather than the plain and simple All-Star he’d become. I think his search is just about over.