Verlander gets serious in time for Tigers

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In the hours leading up to games he pitched, Justin Verlander(notes) used to chat and mingle and unload verbal neutron bombs on teammates in full deadpan. It really is a treat to watch Verlander, the Detroit Tigers’ ace, assault someone with words. The more animated another Tiger gets, the deeper Verlander bores, which infuriates his target even more and sends Verlander into hysterics.

He did this because he could, of course, because when DNA twists in such a way that makes throwing 100 mph possible, what do preparation and focus and other learned qualities matter? Triple digits are triple digits, and the other things are for those without radar-gun pixie dust.

Photo Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander (19-9) set a career high in wins Sunday.
(Duane Burleson/AP Photo)

“I’d get ready a half-hour before the game,” Verlander said earlier this week, “and I realized it wasn’t working for me. I guess I’m not able to flip the switch like I thought I could.”

The wake up came in late April, after Verlander’s fourth start of the season, eons ago when he thinks about where the Tigers sit now: alive, if not thriving, after Verlander’s season-saving performance in Sunday’s 5-3 victory against Chicago that sets up a one-game playoff Tuesday against Minnesota for the American League Central crown and a shot against New York in the postseason.

Back then, the playoffs seemed so far away, and Verlander simply wanted to feel like himself again. His arm was back following a 2008 season in which the velocity on his fastball dipped 2 mph and his effectiveness went with it. Problem was, his first four starts went like most of last season’s, his ERA at 9.00 on April 22, and so Verlander sat down and asked himself: What’s wrong with me?

He looked at Edwin Jackson(notes), another 26-year-old blessed with a special right arm, and noticed that on the days he pitched, Jackson crawled into an iPod cocoon. On went the headphones, out went any communication. Jackson greeted all attempts to crack his shell with a righteous stink-eye.

“As soon as he gets here, he’s game-facing,” Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge(notes) said. “And you know what happened? The rest of the pitching staff followed.”

Verlander first. He buried himself in music before his April 27 start against the Yankees. Two hours before the game, he starts with hip-hop. Then he turns to alternative rock. About 10 minutes before warm-ups, he graduates to hard rock. Over five months, he tuned the process, and since he threw seven scoreless innings that day against New York, he leads the major leagues in innings, strikeouts and ranks 12th in ERA.

The old Verlander – the one who helped lead the Tigers to the 2006 World Series as a rookie – was always there. He was just lost.

“Sometimes I come in here and guys are messing around, and I want to mess around with them,” Verlander said. “But I have to maintain my focus. It works for me. A lot of guys give me a hard time. A lot of guys joke with me about it. But if this is what I need to help the team, I do it.

“I want to limit my mistakes. I want to make it deeper into games. Everything that entails being a better pitcher. It’s not necessarily about numbers. I want 2006 again.”

Photo Rick Porcello gets the start against the Twins on Tuesday.
(Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)

The path there is far craggier. First the Tigers must beat Minnesota in the one-off game, and do so with 20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello(notes) – two years separated from high school – against Twins ace Scott Baker(notes). Then comes the Yankees, whom Detroit did snuff out in the first round of ’06. Those Yankees were a 97-win team full of questions. This group is a 103-win juggernaut.

Of course, New York also stands to face Verlander in Games 2 and 5, and if anything can even out a five-game series, it’s the presence of such a stopper.

“Our team isn’t here without him,” Inge said. “We’re not close. It’s not just because of him, but he’s the guy who can shut teams down and win big games – when he puts his mind to it. And that’s what happened. He realized that he needed a change, and now look at him.”

Well, he’s not totally different.

On those four off-days, Verlander remains the bright, loud-mouthed, ornery instigator. The day after he beat the Twins last week, Verlander compared his photograph shaking President Obama’s hand at the All-Star Game with that of Jackson’s. Obama’s face is visible in Verlander’s shot. Not so much in Jackson’s. Which led to this exchange:

Verlander: “Hey, your picture sucks. Who is that?”

Jackson: “I’ve got another picture with him. I met him last year.”

Verlander: “He wasn’t president, though.”

Jackson: “So? He was still Obama.”

Verlander: “But he wasn’t president.”

Jackson: “He was still Obama.”

Verlander: “He’s Mr. President now. Not Mr. Obama.”

Jackson: “Hey, we were on stage with him. No one cares when it was. They see it now, they’ll say he was the president.”

Verlander: “Look at the logo in mine. [It says] 2009 All-Star Game. I have proof he was president. You’ve got nothing.”

Jackson: “Matter of fact, Ver, it was on a more personal level than the All-Star Game. We got to chill with him.”

Verlander: “But he wasn’t the president. If you really want to talk about it, I mean, I was in the Oval Office with the president. Counts.”

Jackson: “It wasn’t [Obama]. This is a black man. I don’t care about the other one.”

And it ended there. Verlander’s antics worked again. He picked a target, geared him up and sent him over the edge. Verlander laughed, then left Jackson to stew.

Which is a familiar feeling among those who come into contact with Verlander. Before a rough eighth inning Sunday in which he gave up three runs, Verlander had shut down the White Sox, his fastball in the high 90s, his curve in the high 70s and neither altogether hittable. His 269 strikeouts lead the big leagues, and his 19 victories are tied for first.

Verlander left with a 5-3 lead and two runners on base. The packed Comerica Park gave him a rousing ovation. The fans wanted to thank Verlander. No matter how tenuous the lead, they let him know that they appreciated what he did this year.

He saved the season. And not just Sunday, either.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Oct 4, 2009