Save for slider, Verlander happy with start in loss

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers starter Justin Verlander delivers a pitch during the first inning Tuesday against the Nationals in Lakeland, Florida.

Lakeland, Fla. — Here's something you will never hear from Justin Verlander at any time during the regular season.

"I am happy to be giving up runs right now," he said with a laugh. "I need to be giving up some runs and get that out of the way."

Verlander had last given up a spring training run March 27, 2013. That streak, which didn't exactly portend success early in the regular season, ended in the first inning of the Nationals' 6-4 victory over the Tigers on Tuesday.

"This was a typical spring training start," Verlander said. "The numbers don't show it, but I am pleased."

The numbers were these: four innings, five hits, four runs, two home runs, three strikeouts, 60 pitches, 44 strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of 17 hitters. His fastball hit 94 mph. The way Verlander saw it, only one pitch betrayed him — the slider.

"The only thing they hit was the slider, because it was horrible," Verlander said. "I just kept trying to throw it to get a feel for it. Finally in the last inning it got a little better."

He said his fastball felt firm and he was putting it where he wanted to. His curve continues to be one of his best pitches and his change-up was effective after the first inning.

"I just had no feel for the slider," he said. "I almost gave up the cycle on it."

Ian Desmond tripled off the slider in the first inning, on a high fly ball left fielder Yoenis Cespedes lost in the cloudless sky. Tony Gwynn, Jr., hit an 0-2 hanging slider over the wall in right.

"It wasn't the right pitch sequencing and I knew that going into it," Verlander said. "It's a spring training start so I wanted to see how hitters react to my slider in. Obviously it wasn't a good one and all it did was speed up his bat."

Kila Ka'aihue took a Verlander fastball deep — real deep, over the scoreboard in right — in the fourth.

"My (fastball) velocity was better today, so that's trending the way I want it to," he said. "But I tried to go up and in and it crept over the middle of the plate. Again, it wasn't the right pitch sequencing, but I wanted to ride one in there. I just didn't get it in."

Verlander hasn't thrown the slider much, not in his bullpen sessions and not in the games. That is typical for him, he said, since the arm action and grip aren't that dissimilar to the fastball and it doesn't take long to get comfortable throwing.

There is a specific reason Verlander has been so focused on his curveball and, now, the slider. Right-handed hitters hit a career-best .321 against him last year. Over his career, right-handers hit .248.

"I need the slider and curve to be better," Verlander said. "Last year they weren't good to right-handers at all and that was a point of emphasis to me. The breaking ball especially, I have to be able to throw that to right-handers with more success like I have my whole career until last year."

Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria pitched quick scoreless innings. Nathan's fastball was at 92 mph, much better than his last two outings. He was also throwing both his slider and curve effectively.

"We're moving in the right direction," Nathan said. "I am feeling good, feeling way better than I did the first few outings even though those results were good."

After Joba Chamberlain gave up two runs in the seventh (two hits, a walk and a hit batter), Bruce Rondon, pitching with just one day of rest, pitched a scoreless, though not easy, eighth. He gave up two hits but also got two strikeouts.

It was the first time he's pitched on less than two days of rest.

The Tigers offense consisted of two long blasts — a solo shot by Ian Kinsler and a three-run home run in the eighth by Tyler Collins. Impressively, he pulled a 1-1 pitch off left-hander Jerry Blevins.