Another new Verlander article
Promising Verlander takes aim at fifth spot in rotation after learning a valuable lesson in 2005.
DETROIT -- Occupied, occupied -- keep moving, sir, the doors are about to close -- occupied, occupied vacant.
Like finding the only open seat on a crowded plane, Justin Verlander plans to squeeze in, shove his carry-on luggage under the seat and win a spot in the Tigers' rotation this spring as the fifth starter.
That's the vacancy du jour, the fifth spot. The other spots aren't just reserved; Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson are strapped in, waiting for liftoff.
Joel Zumaya and Roman Colon plan to prowl up and down the same aisle, looking for that open seat, but Verlander could grab it first. In fact, he has every intention of doing that.
This is the year after the summer of so much hype for Verlander, nearly all of it deserved.
He's the right-hander out of Old Dominion that the Tigers made their No 1 draft choice in 2004 -- the one with whom they played a tense game of contractual chicken during negotiations after the draft, and eventually signed, but only after pulling their offer off the table, then putting it back on.
It didn't take long for the Tigers to see what kind of dazzling prospect Verlander is, however.
First of all, he came to spring training last year ready to pitch, not as some primadonna who hadn't wanted to sign. His attitude was excellent -- which was important -- and he fit in much better than many No. 1s do in their first year of pro ball.
Then he went to the minors and lit up the Florida State League with dazzling numbers. At Lakeland, where he owns a house and has spent most of the offseason, Verlander went 9-2 with a 1.67 ERA. It wasn't long before Lakeland manager Mike Rojas was calling him "a complete package."
Verlander struck out 104 in 86 innings, allowed three home runs and put together a five-game winning streak in an early six-game stretch. By June, he had nothing left to prove in Class A, so the Tigers moved him up to Double-A Erie, where his stats got better.
In seven starts, he went 2-0 with a 0.28 ERA. They were the kind of starts that sent shivers of excitement up the spine of the Tigers' organization. One run in 32 2/3 innings -- no unearned runs, either, if you're thinking along those lines -- and a .103 batting average against.
No wonder the Tigers wanted to take a look at him at the major-league level, if the opportunity presented itself. No wonder they twice jumped at that opportunity.
That's where Verlander's good numbers of 2005 ended, though. He went 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA in those two starts, basically because he couldn't get his curve ball to work. Without his curve, he quickly found out that major-league hitters could sit on his fastball. It was a valuable lesson, but not the only one that Verlander learned last year.
On August 2, Verlander left a start at Erie after three innings because of tightness in his right shoulder. He had tried to summon his usual high 90s velocity, but it wasn't there. Fortunately, nothing more than fatigue was diagnosed, but it was enough to send a shot across his bow.
Back off, rookie. Don't throw so much. What's your hurry? As Verlander prepares for the 2006 season, he doesn't have to be told twice.
"I was surprised my arm got tired, absolutely I was," he said. "Thank God that nothing was hurt seriously. I came back to the instructional league, felt great, and I'm ready to go now in spring training.
"It was weird (getting tired). I just didn't have it. I couldn't throw hard."
Instead of excitement, the scare sent another kind of shiver through the organization, but it was short-lived. Verlander was OK, but he's now heeding his teammates' advice.
"This year, I started throwing later," he said. "Hopefully it will work out. Before last season, like a typical rookie, I was throwing way too much.
"The other guys said, 'Hey, kid, we know you think you're Superman, but take it easy.' I didn't really listen. That's why, at the end of the year, my arm ended up getting tired."
But only tired, not hurt.
In the process, Verlander might already have learned the lesson his new teammate Rogers said is among the toughest to learn: When to back off.
"I believe I know how to pace myself," Verlander said. "It's hard, though, when you're excited not to just go out there and get after it."
But that's not the essence of pitching, and if Verlander is going to grab that last seat, he needs to know it, remember it, and implement it.
"I feel I've done everything I can to prepare," he said. "Hopefully it'll show up in my pitching."
The talent is there, but Superman he isn't. Besides, Superman wouldn't need a plane, let alone an empty seat.
http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/ar ... 00365/1129