In-game synergy improving between Verlander, McCann

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander pitches against the Yankees in the third inning Saturday night.

New York – James McCann said it three times in the course of a two-minute, post-game interview.

“We came up with a good game plan and we stuck with it,” he said after the Tigers’ 6-1 win over the Yankees Saturday night. “We had a plan and we followed it pretty closely.”

It was certainly not the first time he and Tigers ace Justin Verlander went into a game in lock-step agreement as to how they wanted to attack the opposing lineup. It may have been, however, one of few times this year the two stayed in step the entire night.

Verlander labored some in the dense humidity Saturday night, but he was dominant for a seventh straight start. He limited the Yankees to a run and five hits over 6.2 innings and ended a personal seven-start winless streak in the Bronx.

And he rarely shook off a sign from McCann.

“It’s getting better,” Verlander said of his in-game synergy with McCann.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that Verlander has trust issues with McCann. It’s not that they are incompatible in any way. But for the better part of six years, Verlander was caught by Alex Avila, and over that much time the two began think, act and react almost like they shared a brain.

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McCann hasn’t caught a healthy Verlander for a full year yet. McCann may know a batter’s overall tendencies from the video and scouting reports that he scours before every start, but nobody knows how hitters react to Verlander’s pitches better than Verlander.

“It’s different being a young catcher with a guy who has been around than it is being a young catcher catching a young guy like Michael Fulmer,” McCann said before the game Sunday. “With Fulmer, he’s relying on me a lot, but also, we are kind of growing together. He’s never faced an Alex Rodriguez or a Carlos Beltran. He doesn’t have anything in the memory bank that he’s used to attack them.

“A guy like Verlander, he’s faced those guys 30 times or more.”

Sometimes, McCann’s book knowledge and Verlander’s personal knowledge will clash. The most obvious example was in Verlander’s start in Anaheim May 30. After throwing five no-hit innings in a scoreless game, the Angels erupted for four runs in the seventh.

Verlander and McCann clearly were out of sync. Verlander shook off signs repeatedly and had to call McCann to the mound a couple of times.

“Mac is still learning, not only the pitchers, but he is still learning how to call a game,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He does all his homework and he knows what the scouting reports are, but what he’s learning is recognizing what is in front of him and adjusting. I’ve always said, I do the scouting reports, but I trust my eyes before I trust a piece of paper.”

An example of that occurred in the game Saturday. Verlander got Beltran to tap into a 3-6 double play in the first inning, throwing him all off-speed pitches. After the first couple, McCann called for a fastball.

“It was off-speed, off-speed, off-speed and I was thinking we should run the heater inside," McCann said. "He shakes to go back to the off-speed and we get the ground ball. He said, ‘Beltran’s faced me a lot of times and he knows I like my fastball. Typically, that’s the pitch I would go with. I wanted to go to something he’s not thinking about.’”

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The communication is the key to the two getting on and staying on the same wavelength during games.

“He’s been behind the plate for me now a few times in a row, so it’s getting better,” Verlander said. “I think that game in Anaheim we were not on the same page. We talked about it afterward.”

Verlander, impressively, has put the onus on himself to improve the in-game chemistry between the two.

“I am trying to do a better job of explaining to him in certain situations – not just shaking him off and getting to another pitch – but explaining after the inning or the next day why I was thinking what I was thinking,” Verlander said. “So he can digest that and we can get more on the same page moving forward.

“I am seeing him getting better every time out there.”

Another issue Verlander and McCann had to work through Saturday was Verlander’s curveball. It was his weapon of choice in his stellar start against the White Sox last Sunday, but early Saturday, he didn’t seem to have a feel for it.

“I tried to throw it early in the game, but they were just balls and I was getting behind in the count,” Verlander said. “I got a better feel for it as the game went along. I got more comfortable using it.”

Still, McCann never veered from the game plan. Typically, Verlander likes to save one of his secondary pitches to feature the second or third time through the order. Out of necessity, the curveball became that pitch in the middle innings.

“We stuck to the game plan,” McCann said. “He’s done a very good job of commanding his fastball over these seven starts and when he’s commanding the fastball, it sets up all the off-speed stuff. And he was going inside a lot. And that makes for an uncomfortable at-bat when he’s going to both sides of the plate with the fastball and then mixing in the off-speed.

“As a hitter, you might be able to eliminate one pitch, but not more than that.”

Verlander mixed in curves, sliders and change-ups with equal efficiency throughout the game Saturday – nodding repeatedly at whatever sign McCann put down.

“For me, it’s like I’m trying to catch-up to him as far as getting on his page,” McCann said. “Whereas with Fulmer or a young guy like that, we’re developing and getting on the same page together at the same time. That’s just the nuances of being a young catcher catching a veteran pitcher.”

McCann caught Verlander’s near no-hitter against the Angels last year and his gem at Tampa Bay last year. Saturday was another solid brick in the foundation of this budding Tigers battery.

“The more they work together, the better they will work together,” Ausmus said.

Twitter @cmccosky