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Tigers work with Verlander to regain feel for slider, curve

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander

Pittsburgh — Pitchers and catchers.

So much of what happens in the long hours before a night game involves pitchers and catchers, and a manager who caught 18 years and was considered one of the best handlers of pitchers in the game.

Some four-and-half hours before the game Wednesday, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was in the visitor’s bullpen with pitching coach Rich Dubee and bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer, monitoring Justin Verlander’s seemingly intense between-starts mound session.

Verlander was tagged for 10 hits and seven runs in 4⅓ innings by the Pirates on Monday. The Pirates came into the game hunting Verlander’s fastball and treating his breaking pitches with utter disrespect. They either ignored them or belted them.

So, Verlander was at work tweaking his mechanics to get more bite on both his slider and curveball.

“I don’t think he was slowing his arm motion (when he threw his breaking ball Monday), but that’s what we were working on,” Ausmus said. “I thought his slider was flat, that’s what we talked about. I thought he looked much better today.”

It was a long session. Counting his long toss, it was at least 30 minutes.

“He didn’t throw that many off the rubber,” Ausmus said. “There was a lot of talking. It’s not like it was more intense than any other bullpen he’s had, I didn’t think. He’s actually backed off on the number of pitches he throws in the bullpen the last couple of years.

“That was something (former pitching coach) Jeff Jones talked to him about. He used throw like 70-pitch bullpens.”

The curveball has gone in and out on Verlander in his two starts. His change-up has probably been his most reliable secondary pitch. But the slider hasn’t been there for him all spring. He was struggling to find it in his spring training starts, as well.

“We’re just trying to get him back to where he was,” Ausmus said. “Since the end of last July, though, he’s been pretty darn solid. He was off mechanically with his breaking ball, but it was just one outing. I fully expect him to return to form.”

How to watch: Tigers at Pirates

Verlander’s next start will be in Houston Saturday.

Ausmus was back in his clubhouse office addressing the media shortly after 4 p.m. The topic turned to pitching, specifically the Pirates’ organizational philosophy of pitching inside, trying to move hitters’ feet and trying to induce early contact.

“First of all, moving feet does nothing,” Ausmus said. “That’s a bad phrase. If I am hitting and someone throws me something down there and moves my feet, that doesn’t affect me. It’s the balls above the belt on the inner part of the plate — it’s moving the upper body that has more effect.”

But Ausmus is and has been a big proponent of pitching inside — in the strike zone, not for show but to get outs. It was a staple of the scouting reports he prepared when he was catching and it’s been something he’s preached to the Tigers pitchers since he got here three years ago.

And in hiring Dubee, another firm proponent of pitching inside, he has a strong ally.

“You want to avoid damage and damage comes off the barrel of the bat,” Ausmus said. “There’s two places you can go (to avoid the barrel of the bat) – toward the end of the bat and toward the handle of the bat. Pitches down and away would be toward the end of the bat and pitches up and in would be on the handle.”

Ausmus punctuated his point with this fact:

“The big new thing is exit velocity (of balls off the bat),” he said. “If you look at exit velocity on strikes in the zone, pitches up and in have the lowest exit velocity of any other spot. That’s something that’s always made sense to me.”

It is also one of the tenets upon which the Pirates have built their pitching philosophy. It’s something the Tigers have contended with in this series.

“If you are aware of it, then you have to make them throw strikes in there,” Ausmus said. “We know they pitch in. But the hitter still has to execute the plan. Either cheat to get to the ball inside or don’t swing at it and force them to throw strikes in there.”

In a smaller office down the hall from the manager’s office sat Dubee, with starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, injured catcher James McCann (who is still preparing the daily scouting reports) and Wednesday’s starting pitcher Shane Greene.

They were going over video clips of the Pirates’ hitters and preparing Greene’s plan of attack. Greene has four pitches but he relies primarily on his fastball, sinker and slider.

The day before, they devised a plan for starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez — who has six pitches in his repertoire, four of them he considers out pitches.

Saltalamacchia talked about the enjoyable challenge of catching Sanchez.

“I thought going into it that it was going to be more difficult,” he said. “Guys who have reputations, who’ve done so well and had success, they usually pitch their own way and it’s tough to get on the same page.

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“But Sanchey was really good. Whatever I called, he threw, which as a catcher I love. You get a guy with that kind of stuff and I can call whatever I want. It was great.”

Saltalamacchia has caught both of Sanchez’s starts and helped him through five scoreless innings each time. He gave up two runs in the sixth inning of both. Both were relatively smooth starts in terms of the pitcher and catcher being in sync.

That’s not always the case, especially with a pitcher that has as many pitches as Sanchez.

“(Clay) Buchholz was tough,” Saltalamacchia said of the Red Sox pitcher he caught back in 2013. “He had all that stuff, but he wanted to throw his own game. Sometimes I’d be like, ‘I wish he’d just throw this and we can get out of the inning with one pitch. Now you’re wasting two or three pitches because you are fooling around.’

“But with Sanchey, we talked before the game, had a good idea of what we wanted to do and I just said, ‘Trust me. Let’s stay together and we’ll get quick outs.’”

Saltalamacchia loved having six good pitches to work with (four-seam fastball, sinker, curve, cutter, slider, change-up).

“It’s nice to have,” he said. “You have an idea what these hitters like to do and he has the stuff to attack it. A guy who can only throw a slider but not a curve, you can only go to the glove side (of the plate). It’s be nice to go back door with a breaking ball and Sanchey can do it.”

Pitchers and catchers. 

Tigers at Pirates

First pitch: 12:35 p.m., Thursday

TV/radio: FSD, MLBN, 97.1

Scouting report

RHP Jordan Zimmermann, Tigers (1-0, 0,00): Zimmermann, by his own admission, didn’t have his best stuff in the Tigers home opener against the Yankees. Yet, he tossed seven shutout innings and allowed just two singles. Intriguing to imagine how he might do with his good stuff.

RHP Gerrit Cole, Pirates (0-1, 5.79): A rib injury limited his preparation this spring and the rust showed in his first start against the Reds. He lasted just 4⅔ innings, allowed three runs on five hits with three walks.