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Verlander calls 6 innings in win ‘big step forward’

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Phoenix — When another, less accomplished pitcher says it, you accept it as part of the process — another step forward in the long, often winding, road of a season.

But when Justin Verlander says it, you stop and go, “Come again?”

After the Tigers beat the Diamondbacks, 7-3, on Tuesday night, after what seemed a laborious six-plus innings of work for Verlander, he said, “I felt like I took a big step forward today. Just the feeling I had on the mound, especially when I slowed down.”

Interesting. Maybe it was a subtle pronouncement that he was about to go on one of those oppressive Verlandian runs — like last season when he announced on Twitter that he was about to dominate, and he did.

There is evidence that he’s nearing beast mode. His fastball averaged just under 96 mph and he hit 99 twice on successive pitches — that according to the Chase Field radar gun, which may have been running a little hot. It clocked one Blaine Hardy fastball at 92 mph, which was suspicious.

Still, the hitters will tell you how good his stuff was. He posted seven strikeouts and had 20 swings-and-misses (counting caught foul tips).

“There was a bunch of good things that happened tonight,” Verlander said.

No doubt. Especially in the fourth and fifth innings when he put down six batters in 18 pitches. And yet, there were glitches.

His command was spotty. It took him 70 pitches to get through the third inning. He could not find his curveball. He threw 20 of them, but only six for strikes.

That caught up to him in the three-run third inning. The Diamondbacks hitters locked in on his fastball — driving out four hits, including a double by Brandon Drury on a 98-mph heater.

“Again, it’s just being a little too fresh,” Verlander said, referencing the two extra days off between starts. “It’s a weird thing and hard to explain. But being too fresh, the arm is working a little quicker and I couldn’t quite catch up to my curveball.

“It was either coming out early or I was yanking it.”

It’s been an uneven start to the season for Verlander. He gave up just two earned runs in his first two starts. Then in his next two he got lit up in Cleveland (nine runs) and lost a game in Minnesota where he walked six hitters, something he hadn’t done since his rookie season.

That’s when he made a mechanical adjustment with pitching coach Rich Dubee, something that he said helped free up his arm. His velocity increased after that and his slider got sharper. He allowed only three runs combined in his next two starts against the Mariners and Indians.

And to Verlander, Tuesday was another step in the right direction, despite the early elevated pitch count and the three walks. Things are starting to feel right for him.

“I feel like I am really close,” he said. “Especially the fourth, fifth and sixth innings I felt like I really settled in and made some pitches. Even in the first few innings my stuff was great. Just the overall location and the walks and falling behind guys wasn’t what I wanted.

“But I still felt in control.”

Nobody is more in tune with himself — his arm, his mechanics, his stuff, his psyche — than Verlander. If he feels he’s about to get on a roll, history says believe him.

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

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