May 7th, 2011

Two no-hitters (and counting?) for Verlander

Not only did Jack Morris, the last Tiger before Justin Verlander to throw a no-hitter, give a good effort to sum up Verlander’s stuff, he had an uncanny sense of timing when he did it.

Morris picked his points about the next step Verlander needs to take, throwing fewer pitches, not falling behind as many batters, and slowing down the pace. In the end, though, he saw what others have.

“I wish I could get into his head and just slow him down,” Morris said, “because he’s got the kind of stuff that he could throw one-, two-, three-hit ball every time he goes out there.”

Two days later, Verlander took the mound at Rogers Centre and threw no-hit ball — again.

In his sixth Major League season, three months past his 28th birthday, Verlander has two no-hitters, becoming the 28th member of the multiple no-hitter club. Only one other Tiger, Virgil Trucks, is on that list, and threw both of his on his way to a 5-19 record in 1952.

Just five pitchers in Major League history have thrown three, and nobody since the great Nolan Ryan threw his seventh in 1991. No matter what else Verlander accomplishes in his career, and he still has quite a few feats left to do, there’s little doubt Verlander will get a chance at a third no-hitter.

As long as he stays healthy, he has the stuff, and the drive.

“He’s got two of them now, and that doesn’t surprise me,” manager Jim Leyland told reporters after the game. “And it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets another one at some point in his career. That’s how good his stuff can be on days.”

Ryan threw two no-hitters in 1973, at age 26, then threw another the next year at 27, then another the following year at 28. But his first two no-hitters came in his sixth Major League season. Sandy Koufax threw his no-hitters in 1962 and 1963, before he turned 28, then added two more in the next two years. He was eight years into his career at the time of his second no-no.

Larry Corcoran threw three no-hitters in his first five seasons, one every other year, before he turned 25. But then, he was a rookie in 1880. Around the same time, Pud Galvin threw no-hitters in 1880 and ’84, before he turned 28.

Bob Feller threw no-hitters in 1940 and 1946, the latter at age 27, with his service in World War II in between.

Cy Young threw three no-hitters over the course of 12 years during his 22-year career.

By no judgment is Verlander in that class. But he is in a unique position — in age, in experience, in stuff.

It isn’t that Verlander has one unhittable out pitch he goes to time and again. He has honed the ability to throw at least three different pitches for outs at any time. He can overpower a hitter with a 100 mph fastball — even late in a game, as he showed Saturday. He can change speeds when he wants, even when behind in counts. And when he’s on, he can drop a sharp-breaking curveball, as he did for at least one of his four strikeouts Saturday.

“Verlander continues to throw the ball really well,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said last month after Verlander beat them. “You don’t see too many guys in this league pounding 97, 98, 99 and his changeup is 84. It’s a very tough guy to face. …

“I haven’t seen him in a little while. To me, he seems the same every time he faces us. He’s very dominating.”

Considering he entered the day second only to Jered Weaver in strikeouts among American League pitchers, fanning four batters Saturday was low. But it also showed off his ability to pitch to contact when he needs it.

“It goes to show you that sometimes trying to make them put the ball in play isn’t a bad idea,” teammate Brandon Inge said. “I knew he had a good chance because he had a lot left in the tank going into the seventh, eighth, ninth inning and he was going to be hard to hit.”

He showed signs of doing that last summer, when he started mixing speeds on his fastball to save his energy for the later innings. His stuff is the same as when he broke into the league, only with more polish and a better idea how to use it.

He’s also a perfectionist about it. He can be frustrated at times when he doesn’t have a pitch working early. He had a devil of a time settling down against the Yankees in his last start because he had too much energy, and couldn’t change speeds the way he wanted. Other nights, fastball command has been a problem.

But when he has everything on, he is a miserable time for hitters.

“I always think he’s got his A-game,” Leyland told reporters Saturday. “Once in a while, he gets out of whack and overthrowing, but he’s always got ‘A’ stuff. Sometimes he doesn’t always use it as effectively, but today … Alex called a great game, he mixed his pitches effectively, and he pinpointed the ball really well. He knew he had some extra when he needed it.”

Not only has Verlander never been on the disabled list, he hasn’t missed a turn in the Tigers rotation since his rookie season. When his velocity was down in 2008, he insisted he was healthy, and he pitched through it. He threw 300 pitches more than anybody else in the Majors in 2009, fell five short of topping the big leagues again last year, and is already up around the leaders in pitches thrown this season. Yet between an offseason workout program he examines to the last detail, and a delivery that doesn’t seem to stress his arm, he keeps on throwing the same stuff.

His long-term success — the 20-win seasons, the All-Star Game appearances, and likely the Tigers’ postseason hopes — depend a lot on how he does on an average, when he doesn’t have all his best pitches. But when he has everything, he’s going to be tough to hit — at all.

“It’s special,” Leyland said. “You just don’t see this kind of stuff very often, obviously, and to be part of it is a thrill.”