DETROIT — Slow isn't a word often used to describe 23-year-old Justin Verlander.
The Detroit Tigers' rookie right-hander wasted little time stunning American League hitters this season with a fastball that regularly clocks above 100 mph, a biting curveball that registers 88-92 mph and a changeup that is far from dawdling at 75-83 mph.
The lanky 6-5, 200-pounder has established himself in the majors less than two years after signing with the Tigers, going 9-4 with a 3.39 earned-run average, earning the American League Rookie of the Month award for May and positioning himself to become the league's first rookie 20-game winner since the New York Yankees' Bob Grim in 1954.
His sudden success and surging popularity, however, hasn't rushed to his head.
Sales of his jersey are brisk at Comerica Park, recognition around town is on the rise and media demands are growing by the week. But Verlander is still the quiet, laid-back player who grew up in Goochland, Va., and played baseball for the fun of it.
"When he was a kid, he cared more about what the snack was after the game than how he played or pitched," says Verlander's mother, Kathy. "He's very competitive and cares deeply about his performance, but he doesn't show it."
A defining moment in his life, Verlander says, came from a talk his parents gave him after a T-ball game.
"Some parent asked me if I was any good and I said, 'Yeah, I'm the best,' " Verlander says. "And my parents told me I couldn't be like that, that I had to be humble. That stuck with me."
So even when Verlander holed a three-wood from 215 yards away the first time he played golf, at 16, he didn't make too much of it.
"He just smiled and all he said was, 'That's my first birdie,' " longtime friend Daniel Hicks says. "He never bragged. He never was a know-it-all."
Golf, with its tranquility in direct contrast to a city's bustle, has become a passion of Verlander's, as has PlayStation. A quiet evening with his girlfriend, Emily Yuen, whom he has dated since high school, beats everything.
"She keeps me grounded. I go to her to get away from the game," he says.
Becoming an instant millionaire when he was 21 didn't change him, either. After signing for a $3.12 million bonus, Verlander put the lion's share into conservative investments.
"When he was in college, a scout who had followed Justin for some time told me ... 'the best thing I can tell you about Justin is that 10 years from now, the only difference between Justin then and Justin now is that he'll be driving a nicer car,' " says Verlander's father, Richard. "That's one of the nicest things I've ever heard about Justin. And it's so true."
Verlander shocked Oakland in his first start when his 98th pitch registered 101 mph. After he earned his first shutout, against Kansas City in May, Royals first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz told reporters, "My last at-bat he was 99 on the black. Goodness gracious. That's as good a stuff as I've seen."
Baseball lifer and Tigers manager Jim Leyland was equally staggered after watching his pitcher dust off the Royals.
"I've never had a starter throwing 99 in the ninth," Leyland, 61, says. "He's a talented kid. With the equipment he has, he should have a nice future."
Verlander is just concerned about the present.
"This has all happened very quickly, and I didn't expect this," he says. "I know I'm not established or anything. I have a lot to learn, and that's my main concern. But I have a good jumpstart on it."
So do the Tigers. After averaging 100 losses the previous five seasons, the Tigers won again Sunday, and at 51-25 have the best record in baseball and the lead in the AL Central.
Although the offense ranks among baseball's leaders in some offensive categories, the engine behind Detroit's resurgence has been pitching.
The Tigers, eighth in the AL with a 4.51 staff ERA last season, lead all of baseball with a 3.57 mark entering Sunday's games.
Along with Verlander, Kenny Rogers (10-3, 3.44), Jeremy Bonderman (7-4, 3.82), Nate Robertson (7-3, 3.38 ) and Mike Maroth (5-2, 3.56) have been solid.
"Pitching is the key to winning, and Verlander's been a big part of it for us," Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez says. "Every day we come to the park, because of guys like him we like our chances."
Earning a spot
The Tigers got a glimpse of Verlander's potential last year. The second overall pick in the 2004 draft out of Old Dominion struck out 136 batters in 119 minor league innings before a late-season call-up in 2005. Although the Tigers were desperate to change their losing ways, Verlander wasn't rushed to the majors, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez says.
"He earned his (No. 5) spot in the rotation this spring," he says. "While he's done so many good things so well so far, we have a long way to go before he will ever tell you he's where he wants to be. That's very impressive.
"He works hard, he listens and he wants to get better. He knows he can't live off just his arm and the stuff he has right now."
It was in Little League that Verlander learned his arm was special. Most of the Tuckahoe Little Leaguers saw his arm was different, too, and would weep in the batter's box and on-deck circle.
"I have God-given talent in my right arm," Verlander says. "In Little League, ... I hit a lot of guys, but I still threw it hard. I just had no clue where it was going."
At 13, his velocity became so overpowering that his father stopped trying to catch Verlander and sent him to the Richmond (Va.) Baseball Academy run by former major league scout Bob Smith.
Shortly after joining the academy, Verlander was throwing a bullpen session to Smith and the radar readings were 79 one pitch after another. Finally, Smith tossed his glove aside and asked Wayne Spencer, a third baseman at Virginia Commonwealth University, to see if he could get Verlander to break 80.
"Spencer called him Sally Ann and said he couldn't break a pane of glass," Smith says. "We told him we'd seen better arms on a chair.
"The next pitch was 84."
Work in progress
Smith and Verlander worked on taming the youngster's wild ways. However, Verlander, whose fastball peaked at 93 in high school, was passed over in the draft his senior year. A lingering illness sapped some of his strength early in the season, and when scouts saw him hit just 86 mph on the radar gun, they grew wary. Their loss was Old Dominion's gain.
At Old Dominion, where he added 15 pounds to his frame and hit 100 mph for the first time, Verlander earned All-America honors three years in a row and struck out 427 in 335 2/3 innings before forgoing his senior year.
In college, Verlander learned he needed more than his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. He started developing a circle changeup and curveball that are almost as eye-catching as his fastball.
"What really sticks out with him is that he'll throw that curveball and changeup any time on any count," Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says. "I knew he threw a 3-and-2 changeup to one of our guys. That's pretty impressive for a young guy."
As impressive as he has been, Verlander knows more needs to be done. That's why he is often watching and talking with his rotation mates, especially Rogers, an 18-year veteran.
"If you asked me what I'm working on 15 years from now," Verlander says, "I'd tell you the same thing I'll tell you now — everything."
Nearby, Robertson smiles.
"He can hit triple digits with his fastball, has a very good changeup and curveball and can throw all three for strikes," Robertson says. "No hitter I've ever talked with wants to face stuff like that.
"Plus he's receptive, wants to learn and works hard. If he can keep doing this, especially when he hits valleys, he's going to be special."
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