Lakeland, Fla. — He’s still behind, but not by much.
By the time Justin Verlander makes his spring debut, the date of which has not been announced, he will be a start behind his colleagues in the Tigers starting rotation.
Or as Verlander is looking at it — just a start behind.
Step by step in his recovery from core surgery last month, he seems to be catching up.
Verlander threw live batting practice Monday for the first time this spring. At a few of the 48 pitches he threw, the ones he didn’t like, he swore.
But there weren’t many he didn’t like. And when he left the mound at Marchant Stadium, instead of pitching at the TigerTown fields across the street, the fans gave him an ovation, which he acknowledged.
As spring training throwing sessions go, it was bigger than most. But the bottom line remains his progress.
“I know I feel a lot better about (how close he is to where the other pitchers are at this point) than about the call I got that he was having surgery,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said.
Verlander is well past any lingering tenderness from the groin-area procedure he underwent. He even slipped while throwing a curve and didn’t feel a twinge.
“It went pretty well,” Verlander said of the session. “But I had a lot of rust to knock off. That’s the norm for your first time out against hitters. My offspeed stuff wasn’t great, and I was all over the place, but that’s also normal.
“It’s always kind of weird with your own hitter in there. You want to pitch inside sometimes, but it’s awkward because you don’t want to hit anyone.”
What Verlander did want to hit, however, were his spots, but wasn’t always spot on, so to speak, in this session.
“I expect to be perfect every time I go out there,” he said. “But I know in the back of my mind that’s not going to happen.
“There’s still that (thought) that maybe I’ll go out there and be lights out. I don’t ever expect to be off.”
What pleased Verlander the most from his outing was the sequence of three pitches.
“There were three pitches in a row that I threw down and away that were really good,” he said.
Verlander doesn’t want to be ready just for his first start, though. He’d like to be ready for Opening Day because, as he said a few days ago, “of course” he’d like to start it.
After all, it’s become a tradition for him.
When asked if the fact Verlander has pitched six consecutive Opening Days would be a factor in choosing a starting pitcher for the opener, Ausmus answered, but not at length.
“I would consider that,” he said about Verlander’s streak.
But for now, Ausmus is happy Verlander has progressed to the point he has.
Tigers officials aren’t yet saying when Verlander will be able to make his first start this spring, but are happy in knowing they are on the brink of being able to.