March 11th, 2014

Verlander back to action … now, moving along

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Justin Verlander spent the past three months working like crazy to get back to this point, to get back on the mound in a game … and then start looking past it.

On the day Justin Verlander made his spring debut, he pitched and sounded like he hadn’t left. His mindset is already in midseason form.

He had a couple quick answers to questions about how he felt healthwise in his recovery from core muscle surgery. He talked more about his mechanical adjustments and trying to get back to his dominant form, not just his healthy form.

“I could feel a little bit of a difference,” he said of his mechanical tweaks. “It’s not right where I want it, but talking with [pitching coach] Jeff [Jones] after I came out, it’s much improved. Still going to be working on it for the rest of spring.

“It seems like every day I’ve thrown, it’s gotten a little bit better and feeling a little more natural, so it was a real good sign to get out there on the mound and not worry about it and worry about getting batters out and for it still to be pretty good.”

He was asked about the curveball he dropped on Anthony Gose for a called third strike and talked about the adjustments he made near the end of last season to get his better curveball back. As much as was made about his velocity last September and October, the curveball talk seemed new.

“At the very end of last year, going into the last two [start] of the regular season, I changed my grip on my curveball and I think got it back to the grip I’m supposed to have,” he said. “It had a good impact on me last year and I just remembered the way I gripped it. I’ve been working on that this spring, too, and it was really good today.

“I felt good. I’m not throwing sliders yet. I threw three in the bullpen to warm up. The first three I threw in here were pretty good, so that’s good.”

Remember, this is the guy who talked last week about wanting to erase his 2013 form from his muscle memory and go back to 2012. With all the changes he has talked about this spring, it might get hard to keep track by the time camp breaks. The bigger picture, though, is that he’s thinking past the injury and thinking about pitching.

Being healthy is now almost an afterthought. So is his readiness for Opening Day.

“Maybe [I] might get a little bit more mound time,” he said when asked about preparing for his next start. “I might do a couple light bullpens in addition to my regular bullpen to just get muscle memory locked in.”

Yes, this is the same guy who had to wait a while to get on a mound. That was then.

Verlander Day: Tigers vs. Blue Jays split squad

Happy Verlander Day, if you’ve been waiting on his return. The weather forecast is solid, unlike five days ago, so there shouldn’t be anything to keep him from his first game action of the spring.

Verlander has a flexible pitch count, according to Brad Ausmus. He could get anywhere from 50 to 55 pitches depending on how he’s feeling and how quick his innings go.

“It’s really just flexibility because of the rainout situation [last week],” Ausmus said.

Unlike his side sessions and live BP, however, Verlander will not get a green light to extend his pitch count beyond that, other than maybe a pitch or two.

“We’re still going to be cautious about this,” Ausmus said. “The last thing we want to do is overextend him.”

Miguel Cabrera is back in the Tigers lineup after his two-homer game yesterday. Of the three players who started both ends of the Jupiter end the previous two days, he’s the one guy in the starting lineup today. He’ll get some rest shortly, just not today.

Cabrera said this morning he’s looking for about 70-80 plate appearances by Opening Day. He’s at 24 right now. Physically, he’s feeling good, which is probably the main point. The key now is to get the timing down. He’s starting to center the ball well.

“I want to be sure I get 70-80 so I can be the most ready I can,” Cabrera said.

He’ll get his at-bats today in a batting order that, at least for the first six spots, might look like a regular season order. The big question is what Ausmus will decide to do with the two spot in games when Davis starts. He still isn’t saying. He has been getting Hunter a steady diet of at-bats in the two spot while rotating hitters at fifth and sixth.

TIGERS

  1. Ian Kinsler, 2B
  2. Rajai Davis, LF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Victor Martinez, DH
  5. Torii Hunter, RF
  6. Austin Jackson, CF
  7. Don Kelly, 3B
  8. Bryan Holaday, C
  9. Eugenio Suarez, SS

P: Justin Verlander, Robbie Ray, Phil Coke, Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque, Bruce Rondon

BLUE JAYS

  1. Jose Reyes, SS
  2. Maicer Izturis, 3B
  3. Melky Cabrera, CF
  4. Edwin Encarnacion, DH
  5. Dan Johnson, 1B
  6. Josh Thole, C
  7. Steve Tolleson, LF
  8. Anthony Gose, RF
  9. Ryan Goins, 2B

P: Todd Redmond, Aaron Loup, Neil Wagner, Brett Cecil, John Stilson

The Jays’ other split squad is facing the Canadian Junior National team today. Colby Rasmus is not making the trip to Lakeland, if you were thinking back to his slide on Omar Infante last July.

What Casey Crosby’s return means for lefty mix

Casey Crosby wasn’t going to try to win a job in his first outing. He just wanted to get through an inning without any discomfort and show he’s healthy. He can pick it up from there.

“It was good to get back out there finally,” he said. “Obviously I kind of joined the party late, but it feels good out there. It feels comfortable, and I’m excited to get back out there.”

He faced three batters and retired two of them, so it technically wasn’t an entire inning. He replaced Blaine Hardy with one out in the sixth inning and then finished it out, getting a fly out to center and then stranding two by dropping a curveball on right-handed hitter Travis Tartamella for a called third strike.

He threw a lot of fastballs in the 89-90 mph range according to the Roger Dean Stadium scoreboard, topping out at 91. For a first outing, that was fine. He was happier with a changeup he was getting good feelings about from what he saw in the side sessions and live BP he needed to throw to get to this point.

“My changeup is very improved this year just talking with the catchers and seeing it myself,” he said. “I noticed if I keep the changeup low it has good bite to it.”

He can build the velocity he needs over the next couple weeks, especially since he no longer has to worry about building his pitch count like he did as a starter. The more important question is whether he has enough time to build his case for a bullpen spot.

Before the game, Brad Ausmus said he doesn’t necessarily need two lefties in his bullpen, but that there’s clearly an advantage if he can have it that way. It sounded a bit like the stretch run last season, when Jim Leyland noted during Phil Coke’s absence that Al Alburquerque and Joaquin Benoit could get outs from lefties because of what they throw. Eventually we saw what the lack of a second lefty meant during the ALCS. With Coke just coming back, Leyland opted for David Ortiz with the bases loaded in Game 2 with disastrous results.

Season opening bullpens tend to change quickly, but personally, I’d be extremely surprised if Ausmus went with only one lefty to open the year, especially with Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Chris Davis and Nick Markakis looming in the opening week.

Ian Krol shows every sign of taking on a big role, even with less than a full season of Major League work under his belt. Ausmus continues to downplay Phil Coke’s spring struggles, saying he simply needs to get in his work and build his velocity (he has been upper 80s so far). Still, his Tuesday outing against the Blue Jays has the chance to be a significant one.

A year ago, the Tigers used the mid-March deadline to cut ties with Brennan Boesch while owing him just a sixth of his previously agreed-to salary. Technically, they could do the same with Coke, who avoided arbitration just before the December non-tender deadline with a $1.9 million salary. In other words, they’d owe him just over $316,000 if they made a move this week. Despite the struggles this spring, though, I’d be surprised if that happens. They could wait it out until the end of camp and release him then for just $475,000.

When he’s on, Coke has the chance to be a situational kind of lefty with velocity, and those aren’t easy to find. Crosby, however, is the one guy in camp besides Krol and Coke who offers that potential. His fastball was always strong as a starter through all the injuries. As a reliever, he can bump it up without having to worry about pacing himself.

“I feel a lot more comfortable doing the short-inning stuff,” Crosby said, “not really thinking more, just going. Go, pitch, and just let it go. That’s what I’m most comfortable doing, I feel like.”

The question the Tigers will have to judge is where he stands on being ready for that after spending virtually his whole career starting save for an Arizona Fall League stint in 2011.

On his readiness, and how the injury affected it, Crosby said, “For relievers you get back in there and it doesn’t take long because you don’t have to build up very many innings. But me personally, I feel like I missed a lot, just because when you’re injured you just feel like you’re missing out on so much. You just feel you’re kind of not really a part of the team and all that.”

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