April 6, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Tigers season preview: Club needs Justin Verlander to perform like true ace

Justin Verlander says this spring training has been the most productive of his career. He finished camp with a 3.90 ERA in 32 1/3 innings. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

Toronto -- If he wins 11 games again, the Tigers are toast. Simple as that.

So how much better than last year is Justin Verlander going to be -- considering that he's coming off what he called on Sunday his "most productive spring, by far?"

Nobody's predicting a 20-win season at this point. But it appears he has returned to what worked for him when he won 18 games.

The Tigers get their season underway tonight at the Rogers Centre against the Toronto Blue Jays. Verlander attempts to get his comeback underway at the same time.

And that's exactly what it needs to be: A resounding comeback from a season in which he went 11-17 -- after being considered a candidate to win 20. For the Tigers to be successful, Verlander needs to be that candidate again.

As manager Jim Leyland said near the end of spring training, "There's no secret, your horses on the pitching staff and your horses in the lineup have to carry the load."

Leyland doesn't want Verlander thinking he's the only one bearing that burden.

"One of his problems last year was that he felt too much was riding on his shoulders," said Leyland. "With the other injuries we had, he tried to pick up too much slack.

"But we all need to be better, not just him."

True, but improvement from your so-called ace would be a giant step -- and when asked if he was encouraged by the spring training Verlander had, Leyland said "without question."

More importantly, Verlander is encouraged about himself -- which ranks as one of this spring's biggest accomplishments. Self-confidence has never been his problem. It isn't now. It wasn't last year. It probably won't ever be.

"I never doubt myself," Verlander said. "Even last year, I felt I was a great pitcher having a bad year. I still don't feel I pitched badly enough to lose 17 games."

But Verlander is not so bull-headed as to think he's above adjustments. It was just a matter of making the correct adjustments.

"From the get-go," he said, "my plan was to get some of my velocity back. But I was also looking for consistency in my delivery. That's something I wanted to improve upon, because I don't want to have to throw 130 pitches every start to go six innings -- like I was doing last year."

Better pitch selection will help, of course.

"He's someone who's always done it on talent alone," Brandon Inge said. "He's never struggled. But last year he had some struggles. One game last year (when Inge was catching), it seemed like he shook me off 100 times.

"But what I see is that he's doing a good job of listening to people who are trying to help him. Pitch selection alone could help him tremendously."

Verlander wasn't a problem, just a puzzle. How a pitcher with that much talent, and that strong an arm, could undergo such a reversal had not only the Tigers mystified.

Spring training was not a continuation of the mystery, though. Verlander sought solutions -- and is confident he found them.

"He's a very bright kid who's made great strides," Leyland said before Sunday's workout at the Rogers Centre. "He's figured out some things."

That it pays to listen, for instance?

"I don't want it to sound like he didn't listen before," said Leyland, "but he had so much success doing things a certain way."

When that success ended, it was time to adjust. That's what Verlander felt he did this spring. That's also what the Tigers feel he did.

He made adjustments: Somewhat with his tempo, but more in the mechanics of pitching -- lowering his arm angle, for instance.

Whatever he's done, there's no sign now that his 11-17 season will lead to another. As the aberration he's confident it was, Verlander buried it and moved forward this spring in games that didn't count.

Tonight, he hopes to move forward in one that does.

tom.gage@detnews.com">tom.gage@detnews.com.

Lynn Henning

On deck: Blue Jays

Series: Four games, Rogers Centre, Toronto
First pitch: 7:15 tonight, 7:07 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 12:37 p.m. Thursday
TV/radio: Tonight, Tuesday and Thursday on FSN, Wednesday on FSN Plus/Tonight on WXYT 1270, Tuesday-Thursday on 97.1 and 1270.
Series probables: Tonight -- Justin Verlander vs. Roy Halladay; Tuesday -- Edwin Jackson vs. David Purcey; Wednesday -- Zach Miner vs. Jesse Litsch; Thursday -- Rick Porcello vs. Ricky Romero.
Tonight's scouting report

  • Verlander, Tigers: The former All-Star's effort to bounce back from last year's shocking struggles begins here, with his second straight Opening Day assignment. His 1-7 record over the first month and a half last season sent him reeling toward an American League high in losses and a spiral he couldn't seem to escape no matter what adjustments he tried to make.
  • Halladay, Blue Jays: Halladay returns as the ace of a relatively young and inexperienced starting staff, taking the ball on Opening Day for the seventh year in a row. That streak is the longest such run for any pitcher in Toronto franchise history. In 15 outings against the Tigers, Halladay has gone 11-2 with a crisp 1.93 ERA.

  • Mound of issues

     Pitching was a problem for the Tigers in 2008. It will continue to be a concern this season. Here are some things to consider:
    Fact: Edwin Jackson, a right-hander with a lethal fastball and slider, has joined the rotation in what could become the most important of Dombrowski's many off-season additions.
    Fact: Justin Verlander had what could only be called a weird season in 2008 when he was 11-17. His elite talents have been acknowledged across baseball. His tweaking and fine-tuning during spring appear to have restored his old luster, which should mean something in the 15-20 victory range for a 26-year-old right-hander of his skill set.
    Fact: Fernando Rodney did not throw a pitch during spring camp in 2008 because of tendinitis. He has pitched at full health throughout this year's camp and will open the year as the closer.
    Concern: Joel Zumaya's steady stream of strains and pains has prevented him from throwing for any extended stretch during spring camp. He has not pitched a full season since 2006. His recovery from 2007 shoulder surgery continues to be a prolonged and sometimes ominous process.
    Concern: Dontrelle Willis could be at the end of his time with the Tigers and, perhaps, in big-league baseball. There is no way the Tigers or any big-league club can afford to put Willis in a regular pitching role as his stupefying deterioration heads into a second full season.
    Concern: Although left-hander Nate Robertson pitched well enough to earn a spot on Leyland's roster, there is no guarantee Robertson will be effective with a diminished fastball, slider and power repertoire that was his trademark during earlier seasons. Robertson will be starting in the bullpen, which means 20-year-old right-hander Rick Porcello gets a spot in the rotation.

    Justin Verlander on improvements he wanted to make this season: "From ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)