May 23, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Justin Verlander can't be the Tigers' ace all the time

Detroit — Count a certain white-haired scribe among those who sometimes fail to acknowledge Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander is one of us.

Because he spins no-hitters and wins Cy Young and MVP awards, the baseball world tends to expect infallibility each time he pitches.

I said last week, in a couple of Twitter remarks that probably should have been softened, that when your team gets six runs against the Indians and a lead against Yu Darvish, you expect the staff ace to become baseball's version of the Red Baron. You expect Verlander to win.

It was a defensible thought, in the fashion of a hip-shooting critique, but it didn't allow for fine-line fairness. It did not take fully into consideration that Verlander, as his birth certificate will attest, is human. And that automatically means, from cradle to grave, there will be flaws and struggles — and, yes, even a couple of bad games against the Indians and Rangers.

Inner fires

Verlander was asked about his struggles ahead of Thursday's game against the Twins. Are there times when he is irked that fans and — OK, media — don't get it that pitching is difficult even for a superstar and there will be occasional bad games? Maybe even a bad couple of weeks?

He brushed it off as he walked toward his locker a night after having hung through five rain-extended innings to beat the Indians.

Verlander said his own "inner drive" was what motivated him to pitch and to win and that outside conversation was fairly irrelevant. But he conceded the point.

"If you look at the Hall of Famers," he said, "there's generally a stretch over 10 years where they're not always going to be great."

Verlander could also buy another argument. He is a golfer. It was mentioned as another sport where superstars are a mix of athleticism, power, and mechanics and can also have their rough patches. Jack Nicklaus did at the tail end of the 1960s. And a guy who goes by the name of Tiger hasn't won a major championship since 2008 after winning 14 during the previous 11 years.

Verlander nodded. He also said fans concerned "I'm somehow falling apart" should probably relax.

And he is quite right.

If you watched Wednesday night's game you saw Verlander fighting at moments to master a repertoire that, tellingly, is still high-horsepower. He only walked one batter Wednesday and was relieved his control was back.

He also gave up too many hits. But the hits came as he was striking out nine batters during those five chopped-up innings.

The fastball was still humming as high as 97 mph. Important radar reading there. If his base pitch was fluttering in the low 90s, the Tigers would have reason to worry, especially now that a certain right-hander is three months past 30.

But the power, the dynamism, the prowess, are still swirling within Verlander's rare atmosphere. He simply got off track for a couple of weeks in ways that, he said, "were less mechanical than a matter of focus."

This stuff happens. Again, it's part of having flesh and blood rather than computerization in charge of that 6-foot-5, 220-pound body and its incredibly gifted right arm.

The bigger picture

You can appreciate fans and their anxieties. So can Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who decided, after moments of deep soul-digging, Verlander would return after Wednesday's first rain delay. It was about as close as it gets for a Leyland decision. The skipper decided to say yes, not because Verlander deserved a victory, but because his team and Verlander had a shot at completing that victory without unduly risking his ace's health.

Leyland talked about it Thursday. And his voice made clear that this was more than a sobering call. The Tigers have a possible $200 million heading Verlander's way during the next seven years. Risk a pitcher's health and you're trodding territory that transcends sports and finances and becomes more of a moral issue.

The Tigers understand what is at stake here. But they measured all of this, including the incredible physical and competitive mosaic that is Verlander, when they invested so heavily in a pitcher so extraordinary.

He'll have his stretches, and not just this season. But if his health holds up — and Verlander is as close as confident projections can be made — the Tigers will find that on most days he should be their Red Baron.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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Justin Verlander says his own "inner drive" was what motivated him to pitch. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
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