DETROIT -- This was the Justin Verlander that many thought would never reappear. Washed up. Tired. Old. Past his prime. Better days behind him. After what amounted to an extended spring training season for Verlander -- working out the kinks and all that -- none of those assumptions have been present. In fact, Verlander's been happily kicking them to the curb without saying anything.
Simply, he is pitching like the ace he already knew he was. It just took a while to get healthy, to get back to where he knew he should be. To be Vintage Verlander -- at least, close to it.
"I don't want to say he had his best stuff that I've ever seen, but he found a way to get it done," James McCann said. "He used both breaking balls very effectively. He used his fastball up in the zone quite a bit -- located it from pitch No. 1. He found a way to get it done. As the game went on, he seemed to get better."
What made Verlander dazzling to watch in the past was his ability to do more than dominate opposing teams. It was his ability to escape trouble time and again, to dial up the heat when he needed it, make opposing hitters literally freeze in the batter's box or swing out of their shoes for a strikeout.
There's a difference between pitching angry, and pitching with intent when the situation calls for it. Verlander had the latter in the seventh inning on Wednesday. Saving something or holding back carries no purpose. At that point it's time to leave it all on the field. And such as has been the case in the past, Verlander did just that. But he had to work past what he thought was a not so great first inning to get there.
"Early in the game, I just didn't feel great," Verlander said. "Body just felt a little lethargic and it wasn't coming out great. That all turned around in that inning, obviously. But I was letting it go pretty good and it was 93 early, so to really step on the gas there and be able to run it up to 99, it felt good."
When the seventh came around, the Detroit Tigers carried a 7-2 lead. With one out, Verlander allowed a single to right. Then another. Then an RBI double to Melky Cabrera -- who had also homered in the fourth. Suddenly that comfortable lead wasn't looking so comfortable. Verlander, who has been robbed of a few wins this season, was in danger of ruining his own chances and it wouldn't have been the bullpen's fault this time, nor that of the offense (keeping in mind the importance of individual wins, which are quite low on the list).
At 96 pitches, it was pitching coach Jeff Jones and not manager Brad Ausmus who came out to talk to Verlander, with runners on second and third. The next batter walked after a six-pitch battle, three pitches of which topped 97 mph. Velocity isn't everything. Pinpoint location should be a priority in most cases because most batters can hit a 97 mph fastball if it's a cookie cutter. Verlander used both, adjusting as the game progressed.
"Honestly, the sequence we went with was not the sequence we had talked about," Verlander said. "I think the first fastball I threw, Mac was kind of like, 'Holy crap.' So we just kind of stuck with it. I had kind of the same feeling honestly. It's nice to feel it come out like that, especially the way the game had gone."
The crowd rose to its feet as Verlander faced Geovany Soto, the White Sox catcher with nowhere to put him. The attendance read 31,889 but those actually present were more to the tune of 12-15,000. Still, the ballpark was electric. Verlander, one to always cite the importance of a ballpark of supporting fans, received it aplenty.
For the first time this season, Verlander hit 98 mph. He did it four times. On the fourth pitch he buzzed a 99 mph fastball for a ball, making it a 2-2 count. He dialed it back ever so slightly, striking out Soto on a 98 mph fastball. James McCann had no idea how Verlander reached the velocity he did. Apparently, neither did Verlander. He just did. And that's the Verlander that has been missed.
"I don't know where that came from," McCann said. "That's impressive. Especially in September, late in the season, finding a way to bear down and reach back for all you've got for a couple pitches, very impressive. That's Vintage Ver."