Verlander finds his mix

Justin Verlander talked in spring training about wanting to be able to throw any pitch in any count — not just the fastball,  but the offspeed stuff. His success Wednesday had a lot to do with being able to have two different offspeed pitches work as his go-to pitch.

Justin Verlander (AP)When he got into trouble in the fourth inning, it was the curveball, which consistently got swings and misses. By the later innings, he had shifted to the changeup.

“He just had a real good mix of pitches,” catcher Alex Avila said, “being able to keep them off-balance with the fastball, the changeup — he had a real good changeup today. His curveball really came [alive] during those middle innings when we needed the strikeouts. And he did a really good job mixing them up.”

Verlander used the curveball early on and found good break on it. But it really came alive during the fourth inning, once Derrek Lee — who battled Verlander in a 12-pitch at-bat in the opening inning — had jumped a first-pitch fastball for a two-run homer that broke up Verlander’s no-hit and shutout bids in one swing.

An infield single from Vladimir Guerrero put the potential tying run on base. Verlander left him there with back-to-back strikeouts of Matt Wieters and Adam Jones. Both struck out on three pitches. Both swung and missed badly at the curveball for strike three.

By that point, Verlander’s curve was starting inside to right-handed hitters before breaking down and across to fall on the outside corner. For a young hitter hoping it was left over the plate, there was little hope, only a lot of deception.

“The middle innings there, some of the swings I was getting on it, I felt like it was coming out looking like a fastball and had a lot of depth, getting a couple swings like Wieters and then Jones,” Verlander said. “That inning in particular, I had a really good one.

“It had good depth on it today. Hopefully I can maintain that feel. I talked about last year, not finding my curveball until the last month and a half or so. I felt like right out of the gate in the spring, I had a pretty good feel for it. So if it stays right there, I feel like it’ll be a pretty good pitch for me all year.”

If there was a turning point when Verlander and Avila went to the changeup as the offspeed pitch of choice, it might have been Brian Roberts’ walk in the sixth inning. He laid off of it, got on base, stole second and produced a run to keep the O’s within a few tallies.

“After I threw three [curveballs] in a row to Roberts, I kind of lost the feel for it a little bit,” Verlander said, “and I was able to go to the changeup a little bit more, get some guys out with that.”

By his last couple innings, Verlander looked almost like a closer, switching from fastball to changeup with little pattern.

“With him, all his pitches are above average,” Avila said. “So when he’s feeling good with one, that’s the one you go to. And then later on in the game, then the hitters, they adjust. This is a good lineup. They’re going to adjust, so we have to adjust with them. And his changeup, a couple times he threw it, and it looked really good, and we able to keep going back to it.”

Orioles manager Buck Showalter spoke to the difficulty of adjusting to Verlander, or at least finding a rhythm.

“Four-pitch mix and not a whole lot of tendencies in the sequencing,” Showalter said. “Understands what he’s doing out there.”

The fastball tonight was almost an afterthought. He could go to it, but he didn’t absolutely need it to get an out. For Verlander this early in the season, that’s not in his history. He threw more curveballs and offspeed pitches in 2008 in part because he didn’t have the same velocity on his fastball. He got the power fastball back the next year and kept it up last season, but there were nights when he couldn’t get much else consistently on the corners.

Verlander has one win in each April since 2007, and he hadn’t one his first or second start in a season since 2006. He has his token April win over on the 6th, and he should have at least four more starts to try to get more. If he’s pitching like this, it’ll be interesting.

Meanwhile, Verlander still has never lost against the Orioles.

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