Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander returned from the first major injury of his professional career Tuesday, allowing just one hit over 3.2 innings in the team's 3-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Initially expected to go just three innings—standard for a first spring start—Verlander looked to already be rounding into form. Showing command of his fastball and mixing in an occasional curve, Verlander struck out two batters and walked just as many.
After the game, Verlander indicated to reporters the lack of sliders was part of his rehabilitation plan:
I'm not throwing sliders yet. I threw three in the bullpen, the first three I threw all year, and they were good. I just want to get down to my three main pitches first, and the slider has always been pretty easy for me to throw for strikes. It's pretty similar to throwing my fastball so it doesn't take a big adjustment for me to get that going.
Verlander underwent core muscle repair surgery in January, after the Tigers righty re-aggravated an injury he had suffered a month prior. The Tigers initially expected him to be out "at least" six weeks, but Verlander was way ahead of schedule and within a month was ready to report to spring training along with the rest of the pitchers and catchers.
The team has mostly kept Verlander's status under wraps. While a participant in most drills and active with the other pitchers, the Tigers are understandably being cautious with their ace. Verlander didn't throw his first round of live batting practice until Feb. 24, showing noticeable frustration as he failed to command his pitches.
"I don't ever expect to be off," Verlander told . "Even though I know that's happened every year at this point in time, even though I know that, I think, 'Maybe this is the year it'll be perfect.' It never is."
His spring training regimen then called for another bullpen session later in the week, with Ausmus then deciding when to schedule his first spring training start. Initially scheduled for last Thursday, a rainout gave Verlander a fortuitous push back.
Ausmus is in his first season taking over for the departed Jim Leyland and is one of a few noticeable changes on the Detroit roster.
Gone is first baseman Prince Fielder, who was traded to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler. Fielder's departure will allow reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera to return to his more natural first base spot, which should lead to Detroit finally stabilizing its defensive infield. Having Cabrera and Fielder in the lineup everyday was a massive boon to the offense, but the Tigers consistently rated as one of the worst defensive teams in baseball.
It's hard to tell whether the trade-off will pay off at this point. Either way, it's hard to expect the Fielder-Kinsler switch will hurt Verlander. The 31-year-old flamethrower went 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA last season, his highest since 2008, but the underlying numbers suggest he'll rebound just fine. Verlander's FIP and BABIP suggest he got unlucky, while his strikeout rate and other peripherals were in line with more recent seasons.
If you don't want to factor advanced metrics, then look no further than Verlander's postseason performance for proof he's still dominant. Verlander allowed just one run in 23 innings pitched, but got a combined three runs of support in as many starts. The Tigers' offensive struggles didn't hurt them in the ALDS against Oakland, but Boston's hot bats and equally stellar pitching ran Detroit out in six games.
Barring an unforeseen run of injuries, the Tigers should return to the playoffs in 2014. Verlander is joined by 2013 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to form one of the best top-two combinations in baseball, and Anibal Sanchez and Drew Smyly both have the potential for stellar seasons.
Even as he's recovering from surgery, history says it's unlikely Verlander misses much (if any) time this season. Since coming up to the majors full-time in 2006, Verlander has made no fewer than 30 starts in a season and has made 33 or more the past six years.
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