March 15th, 2012

Thursday: Verlander rounding into shape

Justin Verlander tossed four relatively easy, scoreless innings with four strikeouts five days ago and said he felt horrible warming up and in his first inning before settling in. This time, he gave up a home run with his third pitch of Thursday afternoon for his first run allowed all spring, but ended up feeling pretty encouraged with his outing.

“It was better today,” Verlander said. “I still didn’t quite get in the groove I want, but it was definitely better. Changeup was good, curveball’s pretty good, and fastball control was better.

“Threw too many pitches, had a bunch of strikeouts, but that’s going to lead to more pitches. They were 2-2 and 3-2 strikeouts as opposed to 0-2 and 1-2, so there were a few extra pitches in there that I need to cut down on a little bit.”

He made that point when asked if he took any satisfaction in striking out Endy Chavez on a called third strike after he homered off of him to start the game.

“It just cost me a few extra pitches,” Verlander said. “I wish he would’ve swung at the first one and hit a weak ground ball.”

The home run ball to Chavez, Verlander said, was an inside fastball. Verlander felt he hit his spot, but Chavez turned on it. The called third strike was an offspeed pitch that seemingly hit the inside corner as Chavez froze. It was one of many changeups and curveballs Verlander commanded well to get back into counts or finish off hitters once he got ahead.

He had some good fastballs, too, hitting 95 mph on the Joker Marchant Stadium radar gun, but command was in and out.

“I threw a lot of offspeed today, and it was pretty good,” he said. “So I’m happy with that.”

The fastball will most likely be a point of emphasis for him these next few outings — not the velocity, but the command. The radar gun readings will bump up as he gets closer to Opening Day, which he admitted is already on his horizon.

What we learned Thursday: Even at this point in his career, if Verlander executes a pitch, sometimes it still gets hit out.

What to remember: Sometimes the best signs of a guy’s strength at the plate don’t always come on tape-measure home runs. Delmon Young had a softly hit single in two at-bats, but it was a pretty good one. The pitch jammed him inside, but he was strong enough to get it over the middle infield and into shallow center. He’s 10-for-22 (.455) so far this spring, and about three of his hits have been nicely fought singles like that.

Also worth remembering: Austin Jackson went to full counts in all three of his plate appearances, including a 10-pitch battle with O’s starter Brian Matusz to start off the bottom of the first inning. Jackson reached base that time on an error from first baseman Chris Davis. He struck out swinging the other two times, raising his total to 10 strikeouts in 17 plate appearances so far this spring. He’s 6-for-13 when he puts the ball in play.

Hey, it’s only Spring Training: Verlander was asked if he could pitch nine innings if he had to in his next turn through the rotation. He answered yes, at least from an arm strength standpoint. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to.

The highlight play you missed: Miguel Cabrera’s backhanded stop and throw on Ronny Paulino’s sharp ground ball towards the line prevented a run on Verlander’s line. It was a nice defensive play for most third basemen, but Jim Leyland depicted it as humdrum.

“See, I thought that was routine for Cabrera,” Leyland said. “I’m not going to get into that every time Cabrera catches a ground ball, making a big deal about it. … That was a routine play for Miguel, in my opinion. It was a nice play, but it wasn’t anything other  than a little bit more than a routine play. I’m not going to dissect that, because then you’re going to dissect, ‘Well, Cabrera made an error, Cabrera made …

“Cabrera’s going to catch ground balls. He’s going to throw guys out at first. He’s pretty good.”

Looking ahead: Rick Porcello’s tour of the Grapefruit League continues with his third road start in as many outings, this one a Friday afternoon meeting with the Mets in Port St. Lucie in a 1:05 p.m. ET start. His opposing starter will be familiar Tiger foe Johan Santana, who’s continuing his injury comeback with the Mets trying to recapture his prime years from his Twins day. Prince Fielder is among the Tigers listed on the travel roster.

To-do list for Friday: See how the Tigers do against a pitcher who still ranks among the game’s great lefty starters when he’s on. O’s lefty Brian Matusz had a very good outing in posting four scoreless innings and six strikeouts.

Did you know: Rick Porcello hasn’t thrown a pitch in a game at Joker Marchant Stadium this spring. His two starts have come against the Marlins in Jupiter and against the Phillies in Clearwater. By contrast, Verlander hasn’t thrown a pitch outside of Lakeland this spring.

Non-game note of the day: I have the weekend off, so the blog might not be updated a whole lot over the next few days. I’ll be working on some Opening Day preview stuff and watching some basketball. Come Monday, I’ll be back on the beat for the final two weeks of camp as we try to figure out the final roster spots.

Tigers option Casey Crosby to Toledo

The fifth starter competition is now officially down one contestant. The Tigers announced after Thursday’s game that they’ve optioned Casey Crosby to Triple-A Toledo, where he’ll open the season in the Mud Hens rotation.

Crosby allowed three earned runs on six hits over 6 2/3 innings with six walks and five strikeouts. Most of that damage came in the last couple outings, though he made quite a recovery against the Mets on Wednesday to finish out strong.

“Casey Crosby has, to me, as high of a ceiling as anybody we’ve got in camp, minor league guys,” manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s a potential blue-chipper.”

The decision, Leyland said, came during a Thursday morning meeting with team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and coaches.

“We said, ‘Let’s get him over there [in minor-league camp] because innings are going to be scarce here,” Leyland said.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch: “I’m very happy”

Prince Fielder has been known for hitting timely home runs over the years. As Spring Training homers go, his shot Wednesday was pretty important.

Why? It came with the owner in town.

“I’d seen it go out,” Mike Ilitch said talking with reporters Thursday morning, “and I thought, ‘Oh geez, that’s worth $214 million.’”

The regular-season homers might be a bigger return on investment, but you get the point.

Ilitch usually makes at least one trip to Spring Training every year to watch the Tigers, but this had a different feel, mainly because of the team he has helped put together. A few at a time, Tigers players filed into manager Jim Leyland’s office at Joker Marchant Stadium to meet with their boss, shaking hands with Ilitch as he checked in on his investment.

He wanted to see the product put together, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the Tigers put together what could be their Opening Day lineup for him to watch. But he also wanted to talk with his players and get an idea how they fit as a team.

“I’m very happy,” Ilitch said. “We don’t have a hot dog on the team. Everybody gets along so good. We have great chemistry, and that’s a nice feeling.”

For a team with this much star power, it’s a pretty big statement. Many of them joined the organization with the commitment of Ilitch. Justin Verlander is a homegrown star, which Ilitch appreciates.

However they develop, having those players is something Ilitch values about as much as wins.

“What I think I’m most thrilled about is number one, to win, you’ve got to have stars,” Ilitch said. “And for public appeal, you’ve got to have stars. And number three, people don’t realize — and I didn’t realize — how important it is to get a total organization put together, starting with the business end right on through and getting a quality team built to where you can be competitive and not be a so-so team. And it takes a lot of work. There’s a lot of pieces to baseball.

“I feel comfortable we finally got to a level that you can be competitive every single year. That’s always been my goal. I feel good about that. It would be hard to screw that up once you get there. You tell yourself you want to stay there now.”

Thursday: Tigers vs. Orioles

Brennan Boesch, who was scratched from yesterday’s game with some sort of general soreness (back), is in today’s lineup, batting second and playing right field. Andy Dirks gets a start in left. Delmon Young is the DH.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Brennan Boesch, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Delmon Young, DH
  6. Alex Avila, C
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  8. Ryan Raburn, 2B
  9. Andy Dirks, LF

P: Justin Verlander

ORIOLES

  1. Endy Chavez, CF
  2. Nolan Reimold, LF
  3. Nick Johnson, DH
  4. Chris Davis, 1B
  5. Wilson Betemit, 3B
  6. Ronny Paulino, C
  7. Ryan Flaherty, SS
  8. Jai Miller, RF
  9. Matt Antonelli, 2B

P: Ryan Matusz

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