Gennaro Filice
Tuesday July 5th, 2011

DETROIT -- Fresh off the finest month of his career, Justin Verlander couldn't help but chuckle at his most recent phone exchange with former teammate, and valued mentor, Kenny Rogers.

Rogers: "I turned on the TV and I couldn't believe my eyes -- I was watching you pitch. I actually saw you PITCH. It looked like you were actually thinking out there. I was shocked!"

Verlander: "Yeah, Kenny how 'bout that, huh? Looking like you -- an old, crafty vet."

Thus emerges one of the most enticing subplots of this season's first half: At the ripe age of 28, Justin Verlander's mind has caught up to his flame-throwing right arm. And major league hitters are paying the consequences.

"He's one of the best in the game," Jose Reyes confirmed last Thursday, after Verlander stifled what had been a red-hot Mets lineup, finishing the month of June with a perfect 6-0 mark.

"He's just as good as advertised," offered Mets rookie Jason Pridie, who fanned twice in his three at-bats against the Tigers ace. "And he probably didn't even have his best stuff today..."

At the halfway point of the season, Verlander is the leading candidate for the AL Cy Young, pacing the league in wins (11), strikeouts (130), innings pitched (135.2) and WHIP (0.86). He's keeping the Tigers in the AL Central race, despite a horrendous supporting staff. (Even with Verlander, Detroit ranks 26th in team ERA, a fact that prompted pitching coach Rick Knapp's firing on Sunday.)

But Verlander's dominance shines beyond stat sheets and division races. In the dog days of summer, with the sports calendar at its most barren, Verlander has become a star attraction with national appeal, much like Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson in their overpowering primes, and Tim Lincecum in recent years. Every Verlander start is a show that cannot be missed. Oakland Press writer Matthew B. Mowery has appropriately dubbed it "Must-see JV."

The allure is simple. Just ask his teammate, Don Kelly.

"Any time Justin takes the mound, he's got the kind of stuff that he could throw a no-hitter any day."

And he did, on May 7 in Toronto. The second of his career. Which he celebrated with the gusto of a sedated turtle. Just another day at the office...

Verlander has always been one of the game's most enchanting talents. He averaged just under 17 wins during his first five major league seasons, scooping up the '06 AL ROY and three All-Star selections along the way. But he was still a bit rough around the edges, struggling with inconsistency, most notably during a subpar 2008 campaign.

It's all coming together in '11, though. Right on schedule, according to Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

"What I've been saying for two years, it takes time to get the whole package," Leyland explained last week. "Freshmen can't be seniors."

Suddenly, Verlander is fast approaching seniority. Through his first 18 outings, he is a model of consistency, boasting an MLB-high 17 quality starts. And his ERA sits at a sparkling 2.32 -- a run and a half below his career mark of 3.81 entering this season. Leyland tossed out his diagnosis with typical Leyland simplicity.

"His concentration level I think is probably upgraded. That's all."

The clearest evidence of this: No free passes. Verlander is walking just 1.9 hitters per nine innings this season -- well below the 3.0 BB/9 IP career mark entering this season. But his maturation goes much deeper than just limiting walks. These days, Verlander can't stop singing the virtues of employing "a methodical approach," particularly early in games, when he's still establishing a rhythm.

"Everything has just slowed down a tick," Verlander said. "I really try to stay away from trying to let the ball go and letting my emotions get the best of me."

This slow-cooked game plan has engendered superior overall command and -- Voilà! -- Zen Verlander: "I feel like I can throw pretty much any pitch at any time."

This is a terrifying declaration for hitters, as Verlander has long possessed one of the game's filthiest arsenals:

• A two-seam/four-seam fastball that can reach triple digits, even in the ninth inning.

• A hellacious, mid-to-high-70s breaking ball that Pridie described as "a Bugs Bunny curveball."

• A four-seam circle changeup that looks exactly like the fastball ... until the bottom drops out at 56 feet.

• Lastly, a slider that Verlander says "is just there if I want it."

How, exactly, is a hitter supposed to account for all four pitches, with a 25-mph range from curve to heater?

"That's too much to cover," said Tigers catcher Alex Avila, a nefarious smirk spread across his chiseled jaw. Bad news for hitters, good news for Avila. "With the kind of stuff he's throwing right now, there's almost not a wrong pitch [to call]," Avila shrugged. "It's a piece of cake."

OK, enough gushing. It's time to address the elephant in the ballpark: How much longer can we really expect one of the game's hardest throwers to stay injury-free? Verlander has been very fortunate so far, avoiding major damage for his entire career. He did, however, quickly learn the downside of poor upkeep during his rookie season of 2006.

"At the halfway point, I felt like my arm was going to fall off," Verlander said. "I was just a young kid that didn't know any better, so I didn't really do much on my shoulder. The rest of that year, even into the playoffs, it just felt horrible, which kind of sucked. I'd love another crack at it [while I'm] feeling good. Luckily, I didn't get hurt."

His play certainly suffered in the second half of '06 and the postseason (which the Tigers haven't reached since). As a result, Verlander completely dedicated himself to stringent arm maintenance.

"Justin does an outstanding job in his program," head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said. "His preparation has gotten better and better each and every year he's been in the big leagues."

Another thing Verlander has going for him: A squeaky clean delivery featuring a healthy leg drive. Not to mention a sturdy, 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame.

But at its core, throwing a baseball is a highly unnatural movement. There's always an element of unpredictability.

"I believe a lot of it is just luck and god-given ability," Avila said. "Sometimes guys will break down for no reason at all -- it just happens. And some guys don't and they have 20-year careers."

For their part, the Tigers refuse to baby their most valuable arm. Verlander led the majors in pitches thrown in '09, finished second in '10 and tops the board again this year. And this is exactly how he wants it. Verlander's a throwback workhorse playing for a throwback skipper.

"I've worked my tail off to be able to throw 120 pitches a start, and Leyland realizes that," Verlander said. "He lets me go back out there with a little bit longer leash than a lot of guys."

One of the longest leashes in Tigers history belonged to Mickey Lolich. The tireless southpaw pitched three complete-game victories in the 1968 World Series. Then in '71 he started 45 games and logged 376 innings. Your thoughts, Justin?

"That's ridiculous," Verlander quickly replied, before giving it additional thought. "But to be honest with you, I feel like I could do that."

"If they want to throw me every four days, I'm game."

Who wouldn't want more Must-see JV?

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