Verlander impressive as Tigers fall on walk-off

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — Justin Verlander is ready.

In his last full spring start here Thursday (his final start next week with be a tapered, 50-pitch outing), the Tigers’ ace was in full control, pitching six strong innings in the Tigers 2-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

In his last 11 innings, Verlander has allowed one run.

“It’s hard to compare (to past years), but my body is strong, arm feels good,” Verlander said. “Overall, I’d guess I was slightly ahead of where I was here last year. The ball is definitely coming out of his hands better now than it was last year.”

BOX SCORE: Braves 2, Tigers 1

How is this for a picture of efficiency:

First inning — 18 pitches, 14 strikes.

Second inning — 8-7.

Third inning — 13-9.

Fourth inning — 11-7.

Fifth inning — 10-7.

Sixth inning — 16-9

In all, he threw 76 pitches, 53 strikes.

“He was almost too efficient,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “We wanted to get him to 90 pitches.”

He got there, but he had to throw another 20 pitches in the bullpen to do it.

“He’s been good,” Ausmus said. “There’s really no other way to describe it.”

Verlander mixed in all four, but his fastball (93-95 mph) and slider were his pitches of choice.

“I threw some good ones and some not-so-good ones,” he said of the slider. “Just trying to get it to click. The good ones I threw, I was getting the look I wanted (from the hitters) — weak contact, recognizing it too late. I got quite a few of those.”

He and Braves all-star Freddie Freeman had an epic, 12-pitch battle in the first inning. Freeman fouled off eight pitches, including six in a row with the count full. He and Verlander were bantering with each other after every pitch.

Finally, he got on a 95-mph fastball and lined it over the wall in right.

“I may not pitch him that same way in a game, but it was a fun at-bat,” Verlander said. “It was a fun kind of back-and-forth between us — the little spring training moments you don’t get in the regular season.

“We’re definitely not going to be smiling back and forth. Well, he might smile at me. I won’t smile at him.”

The homer was the only damage done against Verlander. He proceeded to mow down 15 straight Braves before allowing a two-out single by Ender Inciarte in the sixth. Catcher Alex Avila gunned him down trying to steal.

In six innings, Verlander allowed the two hits, with no walks and four strikeouts. He got two swings and misses through the first 10 hitters he faced. He got six swings and misses over the last nine.

Third baseman Nick Castellanos, hitting second in the Tigers lineup for the first time this spring, had two hits, including a monstrous home run off the batter’s eye in dead center field off Braves starter Jaime Garcia.

Castellanos has lobbied for the two-hole all spring and he appears to have the inside track on it. Though Ausmus said not to read anything into his hitting second on Thursday.

“He’s going to hit third tomorrow,” he said.

Mark Lowe and Bruce Rondon pitched scoreless innings. Rondon’s fastball was clocking at 94-95 mph.

The Braves walked it off in the ninth against left-hander Daniel Stumpf. Adam Walker slapped a one-out single to score Mel Rojas, Jr., who led off with a double. @cmccosky