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Tigers' Verlander has regained ace status after trying '08 campaign

The transformation starts in the morning. In the shower Justin Verlander closes his eyes, runs through the lineup of that evening's opponent and visualizes "not just getting them out, but dominating them." On days that the Tigers' ace is to start, he blocks out the world. He won't return a call from his best friend. He has yet to speak before a start with Edwin Jackson, who occupies the adjacent locker. His pitching coach, Rick Knapp, won't initiate a conversation, speaking only when asked a question. Even then, "the answers are short and to the point," Knapp said. Outfielder Marcus Thames describes Verlander's look as one that says, "Don't talk to me today. I'm about to go out and shove it."

Verlander strides into the clubhouse by 4:30 p.m. for a 7 o'clock game, noise-cancellation headphones already on, with an iPod shuffling through hip hop and R&B, before graduating to rock and then hard rock in the final 45 minutes before he takes the field. Teammates scatter from his path, except those who are unfamiliar with the routine. On Aug. 19, a day after he had been traded to the Tigers from the Orioles, Aubrey Huff gave Verlander a friendly nod, a gesture that went unacknowledged. A concerned Huff sought assurance from reliever Bobby Seay that there wasn't any bad blood with his new teammate.

Even family isn't immune. Before a start in Baltimore on May 30, Verlander's father, Richard, and brother, Ben, were standing on the field, preparing to be interviewed by Fox Sports Detroit, when Justin emerged from the dugout, walked within a few feet of his family members, yet never bothered to even look at them. "He had this look on his face -- wow," Richard said. "I told him about it later, and he laughed. He never saw us."

It's not that Verlander used to be laid back before pitching, but he has made a concerted effort to be extremely focused, if not outright unpleasant. Said Richard Verlander, "My brother-in-law described the old routine as, 'Before Justin turned himself into a monster.' "

So with apologies to Ben & Jerry's, the young ace becomes Vermonster on start days. Verlander, 26, has established himself as a contender in a crowded American League Cy Young race. He leads the AL with 245 strikeouts and 111.3 pitches per start; his 16 wins are tied for third; and his 3.44 ERA ranks eighth. A classic power pitcher, he throws a high-90s fastball that gains extra hop as the game goes on, a 12-to-6 curve, a changeup and a recently developed slider, making for what Mariners first baseman Russell Branyan calls "one of the best combinations in the game."

But it's as baseball's top fireballing workhorse that Verlander has carved his niche. He is the rare pitcher who can sustain, or even increase, his considerable heat throughout a long start and, according to data from fangraphs.com, leads all AL starters with an average fastball velocity of 95.5 miles per hour.

Among his 20 quality starts, Verlander's signature performance of the season was at Fenway Park on Aug. 13. Following three straight Tigers losses, Verlander shut out the Red Sox for eight innings, with two at-bats succinctly demonstrating his arsenal. After shortstop Nick Green fouled off three fifth-inning fastballs of ascending velocity -- 95, 96, 97 -- Verlander dropped in an 82-mph curve that caused Green's knees to visibly buckle, after which catcher Gerald Laird turned to the home plate umpire and pronounced, "That's not fair." Twenty of Verlander's 85 fastballs were at least 99 mph, and his final two pitches, Nos. 122 and 123, both registered 100 mph in striking out Jason Bay. Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley exclaimed on Boston's television broadcast, "This guy has some devastation in his arm."

*****

The Tigers understand the fickle existence of the young power pitcher, having seen firsthand the quick ascension to stardom and rapid descent into baseball oblivion of Denny McLain, Mark Fidrych and now, possibly, Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya -- who, respectively, are a two-time Cy Young Award winner, a Rookie of the Year and a pair of 100 mph arms who pitched the Tigers into the 2006 World Series. All four began declining precipitously in their mid-20s, though the injury-riddled Bonderman and Zumaya still have time to recapture their early glory.

That's why this season has been such a triumphant and welcome return to the top for Verlander, whose disastrous 2008 suggested a career arc similar to those of the three other starting pitchers who have been Rookies of the Year since 1998: teammate Dontrelle Willis, Kerry Wood and Jason Jennings, a trio of pitchers who, because of illness, injury and ineffectiveness, haven't come close to realizing their tantalizing early career potential.

After an All-America career at Old Dominion, Verlander was the second overall pick of the 2004 draft. He cruised through the minor leagues in '05 (11-2, 1.29 ERA in High A and Double A) and in '06 and '07 he became the first player ever to pitch in the World Series, appear in an All-Star Game, be named Rookie of the Year and throw a no-hitter in his first two seasons, winning 35 games with a 3.64 ERA along the way.

But like Austin Powers without his mojo, in 2008 Verlander was a pitcher without his "stuff." His velocity was down several miles per hour, and his breaking pitches weren't sharp. After throwing -- playoffs included -- more than 400 big-league innings in his first two seasons, Verlander had decided to dial back his preseason regimen. He eliminated long toss and only threw "85 or 90 percent" early in spring training. In doing so he lapsed into poor mechanics: arching his back, landing on the side of his left foot and raising his arm slot. "When I tried to amp it up, I realized my velocity wasn't there, and I wasn't hurt or anything," Verlander said.

The decline was steep, as Verlander led the AL with 17 losses and had career highs in ERA (4.84) and walks (87). He scrambled for answers from everyone around him. "He'd ask, 'Am I doing this? Am I doing that? Am I tipping pitches?' " Thames said. "I told him, 'Dude, I'm not a pitcher.' " Third baseman Brandon Inge, who caught 14 of Verlander's start in '08, suspects the Tigers' weak defense shook his pitcher's confidence. "Whenever a pitcher knows his infield defense is not as good, they try to pitch to the corners, pitch away from contact and they get in trouble," Inge said.

Last September after the shortest outing of his career -- a five-run, 1 2/3-inning loss to the Yankees -- Verlander complained about the umpire's "tight zone" and said, "There's been a lot of misfortune that's gone my way this year." His manager, Jim Leyland, responded by publicly imploring Verlander to take more accountability, telling the Detroit Free Press, "You need to have the ability every once in a while to say, 'I stunk' -- not that the strike zone was tight. You have to say, 'You know what? I was horse s---.' "

Sitting in front of his locker in the Comerica Park clubhouse a year later, Verlander sounds like a man who took Leyland's words to heart. "For two years this game came pretty easy to me at the big-league level," he said. "I'd just go out there, throw and things fell into place for me. I'm not saying it is an easy game -- I quickly found out that it's not. It just seemed that this was the way it was going to be forever. I guess, maybe, through that process I lost a little bit of my edge."

An offseason resident of Lakeland, Fla., home of Tigertown, Verlander worked with the team's strength and conditioning coach, Javair Gillett, to restructure his workout plan, reducing his upper-body lifting. He saw a physical therapist twice a week to stretch out his chest and arms. With consultation from Knapp, he lowered his arm slot, reinstated long toss and worked on attacking the strike zone more frequently.

Verlander tinkered with his delivery further. Just before raising his front leg, he now lowers his hands to his belt and back to his chest, before separating the ball from his black Rawlings glove. By keeping the glove active, he's less likely to tip pitches. The move also slows his pace by preventing Verlander from rushing through the balance point of his delivery. As a teenager, he worked so quickly he'd throw 180 pitches in a 30-minute bullpen session. Even now Laird will often slow Verlander's pace by idly staring at the batter, pretending to contemplate the next pitch call.

Despite the offseason changes, Verlander showed no signs of improvement in his first four starts this season. He was 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in late April when he sat himself down for a pep talk: "I said, What's changed? I knew the year before my stuff wasn't quite there. Now I worked really hard and got my stuff back, but I'm not getting the results. OK, what's changed from then to now? The only thing I came up with was my mentality on the mound and the day of my start." Verlander is naturally easygoing and full of idle energy -- "always moving and fidgety," in his words -- so he began channeling that energy into intensity on start days.

In his next 18 starts, from April 27 through July 29, he was baseball's best pitcher, going 12-3 with a 2.17 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 124 1/3 innings. Other than a heated moment during a late-August start in which television cameras caught Verlander and Laird yelling at each other in the dugout after a four-run inning, Verlander has been on a much more even keel this season. Leyland attributes his ace's reinvention to "just maturity as a human being. Experience is a wonderful thing."

*****

When Justin Verlander was a 10, he and his father were skipping stones across a small pond near the family home in Goochland County, Va. Richard picked up one rock and threw it as far as he could, his toss plopping halfway across the pond. Then Justin grabbed his own rock and attempted the same, only he chucked it across the entire pond and into the woods on the other side. "At that moment, I was like, 'Holy crap, this kid has got a special arm,' " Richard said.

As Justin grew, his arm strength continued to improve; alas, his control did not. Some Little League players cried in the on-deck circle for fear of being hit, enough that a few parents tried to get him thrown out of the league. Verlander says he didn't know any better, admitting, "I was young and just trying to throw the ball as hard as I could." Recognizing his son's potential and need for better coaching, Richard started taking Justin to the Richmond Baseball Academy, where he received lessons from Bob Smith, a former pitching coach at Kentucky and Tennessee (and who is currently in that role at George Washington).

Even at age 13 Verlander could routinely hit 79 on the radar gun -- but never higher -- until an instructor taunted him by saying he had seen "better arms on a chair." The next pitch registered 84. But Verlander was also so wild that his AAU catcher, Mike Vranian, who wore 1/4" padded gloves under his mitt to avoid bruising, would warn the opponent's leadoff hitter, "Sorry, man, this guy's really wild. I hope he doesn't hurt you." Says Vranian, "The first batter would either walk, because Justin was actually so wild, or he'd strike out, out of fear." Eventually Smith implemented a rule that Verlander had to throw two simulated innings in the bullpen before taking the mound, in order to get the wildness out of his system.

When no single family member could long toss with him, Verlander dragged them all to a local football field, where his mother, father and brother would relay throws 100 yards back to him. So impressive was his discipline that his best friend made an investment in his future earnings. When Verlander asked to borrow 50 cents to buy chocolate milk in 10th grade, Daniel Hicks loaned the money, then grabbed a napkin and drafted a contract: instead of repaying the two quarters, Verlander would owe one-tenth of one percent of his first pro signing bonus. (Verlander later signed for $3.12 million, so the napkin -- which Hicks stows in a safe place at home -- is worth $3,120.)

Smith finally harnessed the wild arm by forcing him into situations with little margin for error, selecting 15-year-old Verlander to be the closer for an elite 18-and-under fall showcase. "When a kid's backed in a corner, sometimes they react in a positive way," Smith said. For his first save opportunity, Verlander entered in the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 lead. His first 12 pitches -- all fastballs -- missed the strike zone, and he loaded the bases on three walks. Smith called time and jogged to the mound. "What are you doing?" he barked at Verlander, who responded, "I don't know." Smith chewed him out, saying he should never give "I don't know" as an answer.

The coach then instructed him to throw only curves -- and Verlander struck out the next three guys on 11 breaking balls, missing the zone only twice. " 'I don't know' is not an acceptable answer," said Verlander of the lesson learned. "There should be purpose and knowledge behind every pitch that I throw. The wrong pitch with conviction is better than the right pitch without it." Said Smith, "It was a defining moment for him."

*****

Rick Knapp was a 41st-round pick of the Rangers in 1983, the same year Verlander was born. After 13 years pitching and coaching in the minors with Texas, Knapp's contract was not renewed in September of 1995. With a wife and two young children to care for in Port Charlotte, Fla., Knapp, for a few months, juggled three part-time jobs, from 6 a.m. until midnight. "There wasn't a worse time in my life," Knapp said. "The big leagues seemed a gazillion miles away." But the Twins offered him a job as pitching coach in the Gulf Coast League and a year later installed him as minor league pitching coordinator, where he was innovative with drills and preached the simplest of philosophies: throw strikes. In his 12 years as minor league coordinator, the parent club was never worse than third in allowing the fewest walks per nine innings in the AL. "That was a very trying time," Knapp said of his time out of baseball, "but because of that I probably logged more hours than I should have needed to, and it really helped me decipher the job that I was doing."

His coaching is working in Detroit, his first major league gig. The Tigers' pitching staff -- the league's second-oldest last year and second-youngest this year -- has lowered its ERA from 4.91 to 4.36, a jump from 12th to seventh. Verlander, in particular, has pounded the zone repeatedly, throwing a career-high 67.1 percent of his pitches for strikes and facing only 19 counts of 3-0 all season. "As a coach, that's the only thing that you're trying to do," Knapp said, "is to give them the confidence to be a gunslinger, to be a dragon slayer."

And that's what Verlander has done, notching the Tigers' only two wins (in 11 tries) against the Red Sox and Yankees, going 10-4 after team losses and bearing a considerable workload. "I'm not a believer in a firm pitch count, that everybody's done at 100 pitches," said Verlander, who has exceeded the century mark in 27 of his 32 starts this year. "I feel just as strong at the end as I did at the beginning. Everybody's worried about injury, but you don't really create the risk of injury until your mechanics fall apart and you put more stresses on your body than you normally would when you're not fatigued."

So the natural with the golden arm and the coach with no big-league experience have jump-started each other's careers, and no matter the divergent paths they took to get here, their next journey will be together and, quite possibly, to the postseason.

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