Tigers’ Verlander gets better of Cabrera in early BP

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — The first live batting practice of the spring is typically an exercise in mutual dread for hitters and pitchers.

“Nobody likes it,” manager Brad Ausmus said.

The hitters haven’t had time to get their timing down. Pitchers haven’t thrown to live hitters in months. It’s just, mostly, uncomfortable.

Except on Sunday.

On one of the fields, Tigers ace Justin Verlander was throwing and Miguel Cabrera was hitting. That is never dull.

“It’s fun,” Verlander said. “He tried to ambush me, swinging at the first pitch.”

As you would expect at this early stage of camp, Verlander had the upper hand. Several times Cabrera nodded approvingly back at Verlander.

Afterward, Verlander Tweeted a GIF of actor Chris Pratt aping an expression of shock and joy, with the caption: “How you feel after the best hitter on the planet tells you, ‘Damn JV’ after seeing a pitch in live BP.’”

“All the guys in my group — it was nice to get their feedback,” Verlander said. “Those guys have seen so much. They are not nearly in game-ready shape, but still, the eye test is there. They might not be on time yet, but they can still tell you they didn’t see this out of the hand, or this looked good. It’s always helpful.”

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Verlander threw to Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton, three right-handed hitters, which limited some of the things he’d hoped to work on.

“I felt good, it was a good first step,” he said. “You can’t make the last step without making the first step. I yanked a few but I hit a lot of spots. I wanted to work on a few things, like going inside on righties today, but with Miggy, J.D. and Upton, I held off.

“You don’t want to let one get away and hurt anybody.”

Pitchers will throw two live batting practice sessions before games begin next week.

First impressions

Scouts are forever seeking the elusive diamond in the rough and they don’t start any rougher than right-handed reliever Ruben Alaniz. With his mid-90s fastball, sinking slider and 12-to-6 curveball, he’s caught the eye of Ausmus and others.

Alaniz will be 26 in June and he’s already pitched seven minor-league seasons. But this is a guy who was undrafted out of a small high school in Texas and signed by the Houston Astros out of a tryout camp.

He’d never pitched in high school. He was an outfielder. But when he showed up at the tryout camp, he popped 96 mph on the radar gun. He quickly was signed for $160,000.

“I just threw hard,” he said. “I didn’t know where the ball was going. I kind of had an idea what to do (on the mound) but nobody taught me how to pitch.”

He was sent to an Instructional League to learn the fundamentals of pitching, and then he labored through A-ball and Double-A in the Astros system for five years. He battled through an assortment of injuries (groin and rib) for three seasons before the Astros released him in 2015.

The Tigers scouted him pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League (33 innings, seven runs allowed) and signed him last year. He spent the season at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo and had his best pro season (2.69 ERA, 74 strikeouts in 73 innings).

He’s likely to start the season at Toledo.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “My job is, just pitch. Whatever happens, happens.”

Around the horn

Dixon Machado, who is out of minor league options, has been getting most of his reps at second base, playing on an infield with non-roster invitees Brendan Ryan (shortstop), Efren Navarro (first base) and Brett Pill (third base).

Machado’s best chance of making the Tigers roster is as a second utility player.

“It depends on the health factor,” Ausmus said. “Certainly we want to keep him. We just have to decide what’s more important. A lot of times these decisions are made because something happens between now and the start of the season.”

… Veteran Omar Infante, also trying to win a utility spot, has told the coaching staff he is interested in playing center field. Thus far, he has taken all his reps in the infield.

… Kirk Gibson was on the field Sunday, working with groups of base runners.