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Tigers reliever VerHagen healthier: 'Baby steps now'

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Drew VerHagen

Trivia question: Which pitcher earned the victory in Detroit’s season-opener last year in Miami?

Answer: Drew VerHagen.

You remember the lanky Texan right-hander, right? He not only won a spot on the 25-man roster out of spring training, but for the first few weeks was one of manager Brad Ausmus’ go-to guys out of the bullpen.

With a fastball averaging 95 mph, off which he mixed a nasty, 12-to-6 curveball and an improving change-up, he gave up runs in one of his first nine appearances.

Hold on to that memory because nothing that happened after that was much good for VerHagen.

“It was frustrating,” VerHagen said during a phone conversation from Arlington, Texas, where he is undergoing rehabilitation therapy four times a week. “I think the May, June and July months were the worst. I was trying to rehab and comeback and it was still bad. Acutally, it was getting worse.”

Sometime in May, VerHagen started to feel numbness in his fingers. He kept pitching, trying to work through it, but the results were poor and the numbness continued. It took some time, but he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome.

Nerves and blood vessels in his shoulder were being pinched, which constricted the blood flow in his right arm.

“They checked the blood flow in my hand when I put my arm in different positions,” VerHagen said. “When my arms were even with my shoulders or overhead, there was zero blood flow in my right arm.”

Frightening stuff, but certainly not an uncommon malady for pitchers. Tyson Ross and Matt Harvey also dealt with it last season. In the past, former Tigers Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman were inflicted.

In a blink, VerHagen went from being a main cog in the bullpen to forgotten man. He was sent to Triple A Toledo on May 22, put on the 60-day disabled list a month later and underwent corrective surgery in St. Louis on Aug. 8.

Another season gone.

He missed long stretches of 2014 and 2015 with a back injury, an injury that effectively ended his days as a starting pitcher. Then, just as he was making his mark out of the bullpen (he posted a 2.05 ERA in 261/3 innings out of the bullpen in 2015), he had to be shut down again.

VerHagen, 26, has pitched a total of 80 games — big leagues and minors combined — the last three seasons. For a man with lesser mental toughness and self-belief, it would be crushing.

“I was obviously not happy about it, just the way it went,” he said. “I felt like I was making some really good strides coming out of spring training. But it’s not the first setback I’ve seen in my career.

“It’s just about having a good perspective on things and just knowing I will be able to get back to where I was at. I have dealt with it just fine.”

That’s the bright side of this story. VerHagen, barring another unforeseen medical setback, will be ready to win back his spot when pitchers and catchers report to Lakeland, Fla., on Feb. 14.

“I am just more excited at this point,” he said. “I can’t really remember how I was feeling back then (before the surgery), but now I am just more excited about next year. All eyes forward. It’s the only way you can get through it.”

Two weeks ago, VerHagen picked up a baseball and threw lightly for the first time in more than six months.

“It felt really good,” he said. “Honestly, I feel better than I did at this point last year. I am just going to keep building it up slowly, not rushing anything. Just trying to be ready for Day 1 of spring training.”

He has been rehabbing in Arlington with renown physical therapist Regan Wong since the third week of August. His plan is to move his workouts to Florida in January, where he will ramp up his throwing regimen.

“Still baby steps right now,” he said. “But the ball was coming out of my hand real nice right away. I feel good, but I am definitely not trying to push anything too fast. I have a lot of time before I need to be ready.

“But throughout January, I will be letting it eat.”

The competition for bullpen spots will be fierce, VerHagen knows that. Another right-hander Shane Greene is part of the mix now — he began last season as the No. 5 starter. Right-handers Bruce Rondon, Alex Wilson, Mark Lowe and Mike Pelfrey are also in the mix.

But that’s a worry for a later date.

“Goal No. 1 is, every day in the offseason, just trying to prepare myself to stay healthy so I can play through the year and into October,” VerHagen said. “What I am hoping for is to comeback and compete exactly like I did last year.”

A healthy VerHagen, flashes of whom the Tigers were able to see last April, would be a bonus addition to the Tigers bullpen.