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Nightengale: Tigers’ Justin Verlander Back to Dominant Self

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Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. Photo: AP

Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander walked into the visiting clubhouse at 10:30 Tuesday morning, his ears covered by headphones, his dark brown eyes staring straight ahead.

He quickly dressed into his uniform, grabbed a scouting report on his chair, and paced back and forth, ignoring everyone around him.

If the Tigers are going to contend this year, if they’re going to delay any sort of sell-off, or if they’re even going to possibly make another run for their first World Series title since 1984, Verlander knows he needs to be, well, vintage Verlander.

Seven hours later, at precisely 5:42, he began his walk down the long tunnel of Guaranteed Rate Field, his fiancée and super-model Kate Upton alongside him, his parents and family behind him, with everyone laughing and joking along the way.

Verlander, again showing why he’s still one of the elite pitchers in baseball, dominated the Chicago White Sox in his ninth career opening-day start, a 6-3 victory against the Chicago White Sox. He was hitting 94-95 mph on the gun with a devastating curveball. He yielded six hits and two runs in 61/3 innings, striking out 10.

He became the first Tigers pitcher to strike out 10 or more batters in a season opener since Mickey Lolich in 1970.

Verlander may be 34 years old, with 11 years already in the big leagues, but he’s still on top of his game. He finished second in Cy Young Award voting to 23-game winner Rick Porcello a year ago, and after this spring and Tuesday’s opener, he’s showing no signs of decline.

The way he prepares, while also taking advantage of scouting and analytical reports, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus says it reminds him of former Houston Astros teammate Roger Clemens.

“Ver prepares as much as any starting pitcher I’ve ever been around,” Ausmus said late in the afternoon, in the quiet of his office. “He’s changed his preparation a little bit. He dives into more numbers stuff and uses video. He’s made an adjustment on his slider. He’s made an adjustment on his curveball.

“All of these things have allowed him to get back to the dominant pitcher he was.”

Certainly, the White Sox will attest to Verlander’s ability to overpower anyone at any time.

Why, the only trouble he was in all day was in the fifth inning. The White Sox had runners on the corners with two outs and Tim Anderson at the plate.

Verlander started him off with an 80-mph curveball for strike 1.

Threw a 95-mph fastball past him for strike 2.

And came right back with another 95-mph four-seam fastball, leaving Anderson swinging at nothing but air.

Ballgame.

“He’s pitching as well as I’ve seen,” Ausmus says. “And his velocity has come back even more than I would have predicted. When I first got here (in 2014) he would touch 95. Now, he touches 97 for the first time.

“We’re seeing what he could do now that he’s healthy.”

Verlander, the anchor of a pitching staff for the last 11 years, certainly realizes his importance. He was on the trade block along with the rest of his high-priced teammates. The Tigers certainly weren’t going to give him away, demanding talent back in return, but it was the first time they were willing to at least listen.

It wasn’t just him. Second baseman Ian Kinsler was available. And outfielder J.D. Martinez. Outfielder Justin Upton. Even first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

“We heard a lot during the winter,” said Kinsler, who homered and doubled Tuesday. “It could be a distraction, but you can’t let it. You hear things from your friends and family. But you just focus on what you can do.

“All I know is that I’m staying. Everyone’s staying. We’re all part of this organization until we’re told we are not.”

Center fielder Cameron Maybin turned out to be the only player who departed during the winter, but certainly everyone has been put on notice. The Tigers need to cut payroll and get younger at some point. The moment they feel as if they no longer are contenders, they’ll open the phone lines for business.

But, if the Tigers win, how can they possibly break it up?

“That’s the plan,” Kinsler said, breaking into a grin. “We’re sure hoping that’s the case.”

The Tigers, knowing a great start is perhaps more critical to them than any team in baseball, talked about it during their team dinner Saturday in Chicago, arranged by Upton. They believe they can hang with the Cleveland Indians all year in the AL Central, even shock the world by winning the division.

They still have the talent to scare the daylights out of everyone, and it all starts with Verlander.

“I like our team,’’ Verlander said, “I like it an awful lot. I think we have a really good mix. And we know pitching wins games.”

Verlander insists he’s not putting any more pressure on himself than usual but acknowledged the urgency. He knows that April traditionally is the worst month of his career. It was the only month he’s had a career losing record, which became .500, 20-20, after Tuesday’s victory.

“I know I had to get off to a better start,” says Verlander, whose 174 victories and 2,200 strikeouts are the most of any pitcher since 2006. “And right now I feel right now, of the last few years, my stuff is a lot better than it has been.

“There are still some consistency issues that need to be worked out, but I’m feeling like my old self.”

And the way the Tigers are feeling, perhaps their glory years aren’t quite over yet, either.

“We were never going to have a fire sale,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said. “What we were trying to do was to make solid trades, not just get A-ball prospects and roll the dice.

“So we said was, ‘We have a good team. Let’s keep this team together.’ And that’s what we plan to do.”

Verlander plans to do everything in his power to make sure of that.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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