Lakeland, Fla. — As they were growing up together, Justin Verlander always joked with his younger brother — Tigers outfield prospect Ben Verlander — that if he ever faced him in a game he’d drill him in the back.
That’s not exactly how it happened Thursday when Ben came to bat in the first inning of a minor-league intrasquad game on a back field at Tigertown.
“I was going to throw it behind him,” Justin said. “I decided to throw it right down the middle instead.”
Ben Verlander didn't miss it. He hit the first pitch his brother threw him — 92 mph fastball, belt-high — and drove it over the fence in right-center field. The horde of minor-league players that crowded around Cochrane Field went bananas as Ben rounded the bases, crossed home plate, ran through the dugout and out to another field.
“Yeah, I guess he was supposed to be playing on another field and he just showed up for the one at-bat,” Justin said. “I kept waiting for him to come back around. He wasn’t going to get another cookie right down the middle. It was one epic swing for him. I am sure I am going to be hearing about it.”
A moment of levity in an otherwise important work day for the elder Verlander. It was his last start before getting the ball Opening Day against the Marlins in Miami Tuesday. He pitched on the backfields because the Yankees, who he will face in his second start, were playing the Tigers at Marchant Field.
He was coming off a messy start five days ago where he had trouble commanding his pitches. He seemed to get that cleaned up. His delivery was much smoother and his command was sharp. He threw 77 pitches in five innings Thursday against a collection of mostly Double-A players, 50 strikes.
He gave up two singles and two home runs – JaCoby Jones hit the other. He struck out six.
Despite the smoother delivery, his velocity was still down – 88 to 91 mph on his fastball, touching 92 twice.
“It takes a little while to get going,” he said. “I am not concerned. As long as the mechanics are good and everything else is good – I think last year I showed I still had plenty in the tank.”
James McCann, who caught his five innings, isn’t worried, either.
“Did you see the swings they were putting on (the fastball)?” McCann said. “The velocity may have been down, but it wasn’t like they were teeing off on him. I am sure the radar gun didn’t say what he or everyone would like to see, but as far as the swings he was getting, he looked great.”
His curveball and changeup were especially good – the curveball was breaking late and sharp and the change-up was diving and slicing depending on the hitter.
“He was making adjustments from pitch to pitch; there was a lot of flow to the way he went about it,” McCann said. “He was setting up pitches. He was throwing first-pitch strikes with his off-speed and throwing the fastball off that, or starting with fastball and working off-speed off that.”
Had this been a regular game, Verlander might have thrown even more off-speed pitches.
“My instinct with these guys was to throw tons of off-speed,” he said. “All they were putting good swings on was the fastball. They were just jumping the heater. But I wanted to keep pitching.
“My brother’s at-bat was a perfect example. I knew exactly what he was doing. If I was pitching in a real situation, I’d put the heater down and away – though I wasn’t really trying to throw it middle. But in a different situation, it would have been a different pitch.”
All things considered, Verlander said he was ready to go.
“I threw 86 or 87 pitches last time, so I am ready to 100 to 105 pitches,” he said.
Manager Brad Ausmus said the lower pitch count was by design.
“We intentionally brought him down,” he said. “We wanted to taper him off before he makes his start on Opening Day.”
So it was a good day of work for Justin Verlander and a priceless moment for the Verlander family.
“Yeah? For which part of the Verlander family?” Justin said.