LAKELAND, Fla. -- It couldn’t truly be a birthday celebration for Justin Verlander unless it included a little competition.
So, two nights before he turned 33 last week, the Detroit Tigers' resident ace went beyond the traditional -- maybe a steakhouse dinner and beers with buddies or a night festooned with birthday cake and presents -- and instead invited his teammates to a luxe country club outside the Orlando city limits for a friendly tennis tournament.
It wasn't quite tennis, actually, but padel, which is best described as a cross between tennis and racquetball in which players serve underhanded (and, notably, pitchers don’t have to worry about taxing their arms).
Verlander had picked up the hobby while on vacation this offseason and wanted to get some of the Tigers’ players in on the fun. By all accounts, it was fun. But naturally, whenever Verlander is involved, the competition is fierce.
New teammates Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mike Pelfrey paired up against Verlander and his younger brother, Ben. The two new Tigers took bragging rights after that match -- at least that's what Saltalamacchia claimed -- and Verlander was as sour about it then as he remained in the days following.
“They tried to change the rules,” Saltalamacchia joked. “You know, typical s---.”
But Verlander’s fierce competitive drive is no joke to either Saltalamacchia, who has gotten to know Verlander in recent weeks, or to the teammates who have been around him through the years. They recognize that is what drives him to be great. And it's what many feel will propel him to ascend again when the 2016 season begins.
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It is impossible to look ahead to 2016 without a brief detour back to last season, when Verlander suffered a triceps injury in spring training that kept him on the disabled list until mid-June.
He failed to record a win in his first seven starts. His ERA was 5.57. It was an absolute grind for him, dealing with the lingering pain and the pressure he put on himself to perform and help his team.
“Imagine if every time you go to do your job, you know it’s going to hurt and it’s going to be a mental grind,” Verlander told ESPN.com. “Once you get into the season, there's no hiding if you’re not feeling good. It’s hard enough to get guys out when you’re healthy, but when you’re sitting there in the dugout in between the second and third inning and your team is scoring five runs and you're like, 'F---, guys, we've got to cut this short or I’m not going to be able to throw, I’m not going to be warm,' and then you go back out there and the first 15 pitches are not fun, you know, they hurt, it’s just a mental ... it drains.”
Verlander’s early struggles might have been a temporary concern, but they proved fleeting. By late July -- coincidentally, the time during which the underperforming club was facing tough decisions leading up to the trade deadline -- Verlander was showing signs of being himself again.
He went eight innings in his last two starts that month, giving up just two runs combined, and people could sense that he was rounding into form again.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Verlander threw 335 fastballs, resulting in seven home runs allowed, 11 extra-base hits and only eight strikeouts with the pitch, in his first six starts of 2015 (ERA: 6.62).
Over his last 14 starts of the season, he threw 923 fastballs, allowing just two home runs and 12 extra-base hits, while recording 51 strikeouts (ERA: 2.27).
In fact, if you look at his first 10 starts and last 10 starts of 2015, his fastball location differences are clear.
His resurgence included a complete-game performance against the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 26 in which he had a no-hitter broken up in the final inning.
Verlander was consistently generating swings and misses and weak contact, not only on his good pitches but also on the ones thrown right down the middle.
And the Tigers, particularly former pitching coach Jeff Jones, saw a telltale sign that Verlander was finally healthy.
“What we noticed after he came back from the injury last year is that his fastball had jump at the end,” said Jones, who is helping the team again in spring training. “But that's what we had seen back when he was healthy in previous years. His fastballs would jump on a hitter. That's a great thing.”
For manager Brad Ausmus, it was the numbers on the radar gun that stood out.
“Certainly when the velocity goes back up, that’s an indicator that he’s feeling strong,” Ausmus said.
The fact that Verlander reached that velocity late in games -- hitting 97-98 mph in the seventh and eighth innings -- was even more impressive.
"I can't help it. I literally can't help it. There's times where I don't want to be competitive but I can't help it. It's just natural instinct."
Saltalamacchia said he has seen only two pitchers able to do that, Verlander and Felix Hernandez.
Teammate Daniel Norris remembers how fun that was to watch from the dugout.
“Part of it is being smart early in the game and conserving a little bit, but at the same time, that’s just his competitive nature coming out, like, 'Ah, screw this, I'm letting it go,'" Norris said.
Verlander chalks it up to this:
“Effort, adrenaline, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’ve always been somebody that when I train in the gym or when I’m running, I do the end hardest or the fastest, and I guess that carries over. It’s just the way I’m built, naturally.”
That drive to finish, compete and never give up manifests in different ways and is not always pleasant. (See: A livid Verlander exits game in second inning against Pittsburgh on Aug. 11, 2014, a move that the pitcher can only now, begrudgingly, admit was the right call.) But that drive is what has the Tigers confident they have their ace back to start the season.
“We saw it at the end of the season what he’s capable of when he’s healthy again,” Jones said. “He went through two or three years when he wasn’t totally healthy, and he still took the ball. That speaks volumes for the type of guy he is.”
Verlander is just relieved that part is behind him now.
“It was a mental battle. I mean, it was not easy,” Verlander said. “If I had stayed like that the rest of my career, I don’t know what I would have done, which is why I worked so hard. Man, that was not fun whatsoever.”
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Verlander describes this spring as "fun," however.
He arrived in camp joking about the few stray gray hairs in his beard, insisting he is not the “old guy” even though he remains the lone holdover from the 2006 team that made it to the World Series.
Verlander seems as sharp and spry as ever but has taken on a more vocal leadership role. He paces his pitching group in sprinting drills, organizes team events after workouts and even angles his chair in the pitchers’ wing of the clubhouse to serve as the sort of elder statesman when they convene to chat.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound native of Manakin-Sabot, Virginia -- a self-described “Southern boy” who, despite his superlative training regimen, will never trade home cooking for juiced kale -- has even taken on a critical role mentoring Norris.
The two players have been working out together in Florida since the end of January, and Verlander never skimps on opportunities to give the 22-year-old up-and-comer advice. Sometimes it’s mechanical, while other times it has more to do with routine.
If Norris throws two good changeups in a row and seems satisfied, Verlander will push him to throw a few more, to continue building that muscle memory.
Norris tries to soak up as much of it as possible.
“I want to be the best in the world,” Norris said. “He has been the best in the world, and he wants to stay the best in the world.”
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Saltalamacchia describes Verlander as both a "great guy" and a "teddy bear," although any sort of warm fuzziness fades when he approaches the mound and goes to work.
Saltalamacchia caught Verlander's third bullpen this spring -- his first official session during spring training -- and was immediately impressed. His downward angle was strong, and his self-correction was meticulous. He'd miss on one pitch, then manipulate the next to locate it perfectly.
When Saltalamacchia trotted out to give the pitcher feedback after the session, he found out he didn't have much to critique.
"I told him, 'You're about as close to regular-season form as you can be.'"
Some also predict that the Tigers' adding free-agent acquisition Jordan Zimmermann to the fold will only further spark Verlander’s hunger. He has thrived in the past with other upper-echelon pitchers right behind him in the rotation -- David Price and Max Scherzer -- and there is little reason to think he cannot do it again.
“The fact that Zimmermann is here is going to do nothing but help Justin,” Jones said. “Zimmermann is still a star, but he’s a workhorse guy where he’s going to suck up a lot of innings. He’s gonna give you the chance to win a lot of games. And pitchers, a lot of times, will feed off that.”
Said Ausmus: “Ideally, they push each other. It becomes kind of a friendly game of who can outdo the other.”
When it comes to Verlander and competition, however, it’s never that simple. He tries to think of a few areas in which he could calmly accept defeat. Water skiing? Nope. Chess? Not that, either. Heck, his brother is 9 years younger; one would think that creates enough distance to sever the sibling rivalries.
But Verlander admits he still tries to “beat the crap out of him.” (“Not physically,” he insists.)
“Of course, I’m probably not the easiest guy to get along with because of that,” Verlander said with a self-deprecating laugh.
Whether he likes to compete or is simply compelled by the urge isn’t always easy to discern. Perhaps it's a combination of both. It's futile for him to try to change that now, especially considering it has been, and will continue to be, a vital component to his success.
“I don’t know. I can’t help it. I literally can’t help it,” Verlander said. "There's times where I don’t want to be competitive, but I can’t help it. It’s just natural instinct."