Tigers’ Verlander: ‘Let’s go win’

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Justin Verlander, the longest tenured Tigers player, stood at his locker inside the posh new clubhouse Tuesday at Tigertown. It was the first official workout day for pitchers and catchers, though he’d been working out at the facility since early January. It wasn’t nearly as posh back then.

“Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of progress come together in here at the last minute,” he said. “Two months ago I was a little worried we wouldn’t be in here. But they pulled it together and it looks awesome.”

That it does. It’s three times the size of the old clubhouse, complete with a massive weight room and player’s lounge. Verlander, beginning his 12th season with the Tigers, talked expansively on various topics, including the team’s prospects, the death of owner Mike Ilitch and his conversation with former manager Jim Leyland about playing in the World Baseball Classic.

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Q. What was your reaction when it became clear that general manager Al Avila was going to keep the team intact for 2017?

A. “Let’s go win. I think there was a lot going on, a lot of talk and you really can’t focus on that. You focus on doing what you’ve got to do. Do you work, your regular offseason program and see what happens.

“This was the offseason we were all supposed to be broke up and I wasn’t going to know anybody. Now, there is probably the most familiar faces in here since I’ve been here. Thankfully. You don’t know what’s going to happen and I know we harped on this a bunch during TigerFest, but if we can keep guys healthy, I really like this ballclub.”

Q. You believe this team is a playoff contender?

A. “Yeah. I’ve said, ever since I’ve been here, I haven’t walked into a spring training clubhouse thinking we didn’t have a chance to win. This year is no different. We were one game away last year and we had four or five key injuries to key players — not just for a week or two but for an extended period of time. That costs you wins along the way and if we make up four or five of those games, we are easily in the playoffs.”

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Q. What did Mike Ilitch mean to you?

A. “A lot. Mr. I, I mean, I grew up in this organization. He changed my life dramatically. He changed a lot of guys’ lives dramatically. Obviously I was kind of upset to hear the news (that he died Friday). Pretty tough. He lived a great life. I talked to Chris Ilitch a little bit and I think a celebration of life is appropriate for Mr. I, for sure.”

Q. Do you think his death can overshadow or carry over through the season — in a positive way?

A. “I hope so. I know in his heart he loved baseball. He played minor league ball. And he did everything he possibly could for us. It just tears me to pieces we couldn’t do it (win a championship) for him. Hopefully he will be an angel on our side this year, watching from above. I hope we can get it done for him.”

Q. Did you alter your offseason program at all?

A. No, it was similar to last year. When you are healthy, you go back to doing what you normally do. I probably started working out a little earlier this offseason, probably because I was so excited to be feeling good. I started throwing at my normal time. Thankfully there were no setbacks. Just business as usual.”

Q. You typically don’t need much outside motivation, but is there any carryover from the Cy Young voting (he was edged out by Rick Porcello, even though he got more first-place votes).

A. No. Everybody wants to do well personally. In a certain aspect you have to be selfish and you want to go out and perform individually. Jim Leyland used to say this at the start of every spring training: If our star players play like star players, we’re probably going to win. That’s just the weight that’s on your shoulders when you have expectations to be great. Missing or winning that award doesn’t change anything in my mind. I am still going to go out and try to be the best I can be.”

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Q. You had a chance to play on Team USA in the WBC and decided not to after a long talk with Leyland. Can you share that conversation?

A. “Jim and I became close over the nine years we were together. I called him on a more personal touch and less as a manager. I asked him to be straight with me. I wanted to play for Team USA. I got to do it in college but this was on a different level. To represent my country is something that is pretty special. But you also have to take into account everything in the bigger picture. And that’s what I wanted to talk to Jim about.

“Last year was the first year I had no setbacks. I was able to just pitch all the way through. Now you throw that into this year, would I be pushing it? He said, ‘Justin, as a manager, I want you to play. But as a friend, I’d probably tell you your health is more important than anything.’ In a different situation I would have done it. But that’s why I love Jim. He’s very honest and candid and he tells you what’s on his mind.”

Q. As the years go on, do you find yourself, in a sense, stopping to smell the roses a little more —appreciating some of the smaller things you may have taken for granted to rushed through when you were younger?

A. “Yeah, I mean on one hand you want to appreciate everything as much as you can. It’s not such a whirlwind anymore. You know what to expect. But in the same aspect, every day is pretty much the same as I’ve done for 12 years — so it’s also going faster. It’s kind of a weird place to be. It’s nice to have all these young guys around me to help guide them through the process.”