Tigers' Verlander ready to reclaim ace status

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander throws a bullpen session.

Lakeland, Fla. — Can it possibly be 10 years since Justin Verlander’s first big league spring training with the Tigers?

“No,” he said with a grin Thursday. “I was trying to make the team my first year (2005), too, so it’s actually more than 10. Time flies.”

He’s now the longest tenured Tiger, the last man standing from the 2006 World Series team. Time flies, indeed.

“It’s funny looking back,” he said. “Some of the guys I played with, just going back a few years, that 2006 team — I’ve been the only one standing for a few years now. It’s crazy to think that. You go back through some of the names — I played against (Brad) Ausmus. Craig (Monroe) is in TV now. Weird to think of that.”

You can call him the longest tenured Tiger, but don’t call him the elder statesman. He’ll fight you on that.

“I don’t think I’m the old guy,” said Verlander, who turns 33 on Saturday. “A couple of years ago I probably would’ve thought, ‘Yeah, my body is starting to age on me.’ Everybody says at 30 things change and I think maybe that got in my mind a little.

“But it ended up not being that at all, just something out of my control (injuries). I feel great now.”

To see Verlander putting in his work this past week, finally healthy for a full offseason without needing surgical rehab, it could be 2010 or 2011. He threw his fourth bullpen of the spring (50 pitches) on Thursday and spring workouts don’t officially begin until Friday.

“It feels like it used to feel,” he said. “Normal hasn’t really been the status quo the last few years. But I feel great. It’s a lot of fun being able to do my normal routine, to be able to do long toss whenever I want, work off the mound when I need to without any issues.”

Still, he’s being smart. Because the Tigers were long out of playoff contention, he took advantage of October and half of November to rest his body.

“Obviously, you’d like to go to the playoffs every year,” he said. “I hope we can go on another run where we are going to the playoffs on a string of years in a row. But that takes a toll on you, so I need to take the time when I have it to be able to recover.”

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He’s looked fresh, and strong, this week. He threw a 50-pitch bullpen on Tuesday. Did long toss on Wednesday and threw another 50-pitch bullpen Thursday. It appeared he was throwing all his pitches – he said he hasn’t added a split-fingered pitch yet — and there was plenty of zip on the fastball.

“I don’t want to say it’s night and day from last year, because I remember telling you guys I felt pretty good last year, too — I just ran into an injury at the end of the spring,” Verlander said. “But right now it feels the best I can remember in a long time. I’m throwing every day. I am long-tossing a lot, which I couldn’t do last year. I don’t even feel like I am pushing it right now. It just feels good.”

He’s also breaking in his third pitching coach in 10 years. Rich Dubee, who replaced the retired Jeff Jones, stood behind Verlander during the last two bullpens — saying little but observing it all.

“I’ve always been someone who can talk with guys and try different things,” Verlander said. “If it works, great. If it doesn’t then move on. That’s what you need to do when you bring in somebody new because he’s going to have his own ideas and things.”

Verlander said Dubee hasn’t yet talked much about his philosophies on pitching, but he’s eager to hear them.

“They can work for you as long as you aren’t closed-minded, which I am not,” he said. “I am willing to listen and try anything. You also have to understand whether it works for you or not and you have to realize that in a hurry.”  

Back in 2006, Verlander would stay back and watch veteran Kenny Rogers throw his bullpens. On Thursday, several young Tigers pitchers stayed and watched Verlander's session.

“Like watching a clinic,” Shane Greene said as he walked by. 

This is who Verlander is now — the sage veteran. 

“I don’t think of it as being a veteran mentor or whatever,” he said. “I just think, I have some knowledge having pitched in this game for 10 years. If anyone wants to talk to me or pick my brain about anything, I’m an open book.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Come April 5, barring injury or other unforeseen malady, Verlander will be back where he was from 2008 through 2014 – the ace of the staff making the Opening Day start against the Marlins in Miami.