CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It’s hard to remember now that when spring training started, we actually doubted Justin Verlander.
He was coming off the dreaded “core surgery.” He was behind the rest of the pitching staff. We wondered if he’d be ready for Opening Day. We wondered if he’d be the same guy.
How could we ever have doubted? How could we ever have wondered? What were we thinking?
The Tigers’ ace went to the mound Wednesday for his fourth start of spring training. It looked a lot like the other three. By which we mean: domination.
One soft hit allowed in 6 1/3 innings. Zero runs. One walk. Seven strikeouts. What else is new?
So in those four starts he made this spring, he never did get around to allowing a run. Not a one. In only one of the four starts did he even give up more than one hit.
All told, he pitched 20 innings. He gave up eight hits. He struck out 17. Those poor, defenseless humans who had to bat against him hit .127.
So what would he have said, we asked him, if we’d told him going into spring training that he’d do all that this spring?
“Good,” he said with a laugh.
So that was really what he expected of himself, even coming off surgery?
“It’s what I always expect,” he said simply.
Even after surgery, he never, ever doubted he could be the same guy?
“I don't think you can allow yourself to doubt,” he said. “When doubt creeps in your mind, that leads to failure. You have to look on the optimistic side of things.”
Do those words sum up the greatness of Justin Verlander, or what? Doubt and failure are incomprehensible to him. And unacceptable. It’s what he is. It’s who he is.
He’s 31 now. He has a Cy Young award and MVP trophy in his hardware shop. He is in the second year of the second-largest contract ever awarded to a major league pitcher (seven years, $180 million). And he’s determined to live up to it. This year. Every year.
When someone suggested Wednesday that for the Tigers to be great, he has to be what he’s always been, Verlander made it obvious he never considered not being what he’s always been.
“I don’t think you go into the season with doubt,” he said. “That’s why I worked so hard. After surgery, I worked my butt off to get back. And this spring has been encouraging.”
Encouraging? It’s been amazing. He may not be whooshing the baseball up there at 100 mph anymore. But his command of everything in his repertoire has been ridiculous. He rolled up five of his seven strikeouts on off-speed stuff Wednesday. And he’s been a strike-throwing machine all spring.
So if there were questions six weeks ago about whether surgery would limit him in any way, you don’t hear those questions anymore. Not from Verlander. Not from his manager, Brad Ausmus, either.
“I don’t think the surgery is going to have a major impact on his ability to pitch,” Ausmus said. “I know I’ve spoken to him about it, and he’s completely comfortable about it. He says he doesn’t even think about it anymore. At one point, I was concerned about him making a pickoff throw to second. And I asked him about it. And he said, 'Oh, I’m fine.’ He said, 'I don’t even think about it.’ ... Just the way he had to turn, I was concerned. But my concerns were immediately laid to rest.”
A month ago, Ausmus had said he was convinced that if Verlander could just build up his pitch count this spring, he could “will himself to be Justin Verlander.” And now, it’s clear. That’s exactly what he did.
Asked Wednesday about the strength of that will, Verlander smiled.
“I’m very competitive,” he said. “I’m determined to pitch to my capability.”
Well, 20 scoreless spring innings later, it’s time to ask ourselves again: Why did we ever doubt him?