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Feisty Verlander roughed up by Nationals

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander runs back to the dugout between innings Sunday.

Lakeland, Fla. – Justin Verlander has two spring starts left. If his outing Sunday is any indication, his snarl and game-day intensity are much more regular-season ready than his slider.

Verlander had an animated chat during the second inning with catcher Alex Avila and an on-going dialogue, with varying degrees of saltiness, with home plate umpire Jerry Layne.

"Jerry and I have a great amount of mutual respect," Verlander said after giving up three solo home runs in 4.1 innings in a 7-7 tie against the Nationals. "I respect him a lot as an umpire. He said it was just his third time behind the plate (this spring) so we were talking back and forth on what our opinions were about certain pitches."

Rough translation: Verlander thought Layne was squeezing him.

As for his chat with Avila, Verlander described it as animated "in a good way."

"It was over a pickoff call," Verlander said. "He thought he was right and I thought I was right. I won't go into who was right."

Usually Verlander will happily report when he is right.

"I am not saying I was wrong," he said, with a laugh. "It was a typical Alex and I conversation. He always thinks he's right, as well. It was actually a funny conversation."

Ausmus said it was a mix-up about a signal and it "took about two seconds" to straighten out. Getting Verlander's slider straightened out, however, wasn't so simple.

"That was my main emphasis today," said Verlander, who threw 79 pitches, 48 strikes. "It was better, but it wasn't great. I talked to Alex and he said it was about 50-50."

The slider was an issue in his last start, too. Also against the Nationals, he gave up four runs on five hits. Verlander said he altered his grip between starts and had trouble getting comfortable with it early.

"I'd say it was 50 percent better," he said. "Half of them were good and half weren't good at all. But that is a lot better than it was last time. I was pretty encouraged by the good ones. Now it's a matter of throwing it consistently."

He struck out Tyler Moore on three good sliders in the second inning. But he also hung one to Michael Taylor on a 1-2 pitch, one that Taylor hit out of Marchant Stadium. It was one of two homers he hit off Verlander.

The good news, though, was that his fastball velocity reached 96 mph.

Justin Verlander talks with Brad Ausmus during the second inning Sunday.

"It's what we talked about," he said. "I'm usually a guy who gets stronger through the spring. This is the best my fastball has been since Seattle last year."

He beat Seattle on May 30, hitting 95 mph in the first inning, reaching 98 and averaging 94.8, according to Brooks Baseball. On Sunday, the fastball ranged, on a wonky stadium radar gun, between 89 and 96 mph.

"I usually have a range but I think that was a little funky," Verlander said, of the gun's readings. "It would read one right, then the next pitch would be exactly the same and it would read 3 miles per hour slower. It was up and down."

It read 89 mph on the long home run off the light tower in right that left-handed hitting Ian Stewart belted off him in the fourth.

"I am not there yet," Verlander said. "But the overall trend is what I want, especially with the fastball. It's getting better and better. Now it's just fine-tuning location with that and the off-speed pitches."

Verlander expects he will throw 90 to 95 pitches in his next spring start, still concentrating on the slider, then for the last start of spring, "attack like I normally would."

Saved by the scar

Closer Joe Nathan made a rookie mistake Sunday. He reached for a ball hit back at him, not with his glove, but with his pitching hand. It caromed off to shortstop Hernan Perez, who finished the 1-6-3 double play.

"He hit it and I thought I could catch it," Nathan said. "I thought I had it and it would just be, bam, double the guy off. But sure enough, it goes off my ring finger. I mean, you know the rule (about not fielding with your pitching hand), but once the thing is in the air, the competitive juices are flowing and everything else goes out the window."

The finger went numb initially, but Nathan was saved from further injury by scar tissue from an old basketball injury.

"I was waiting because when it hit, the finger went numb. But it hit on my scar and I still had some scar tissue," he said. "It was from when I was in college and my finger blew up like a party favor."

Saved by the hardened tissue, Nathan completed the inning and doesn't think he will miss any time.

Short hop

The Tigers hit four home runs Sunday. J.D. Martinez hit his fifth, a long and loud blast onto the berm in left. Alex Avila hit his first of the spring off left-hander Jerry Blevins. Minor leaguers Wade Gaynor and Joey Pankake also homered. Pankake's blast in the ninth forced the tie.

Twitter@cmccosky