There has rarely been much subtle about how Justin Verlander gets batters out. The Tigers' ace brings unconscionable heat that he routinely dials up to and past 100 miles per hour even in the game's late innings -- "devastation in his arm," as once described by Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley -- which he combines with a sharp breaking ball.
Bringing that one-two punch in succession is how Verlander tallied the final out of his second career no-hitter on Saturday afternoon in Toronto. He set up the Blue Jays' Rajai Davis with fastballs of 99 and 100 before downshifting a notch to his hook, a sharply spun slider of 88 that twice broke unmercifully from the outside corner of the plate into the opposite batter's box, the second looking tempting enough for Davis to gently wave through it.
Verlander faced the minimum as he allowed just one base runner -- Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia worked a 12-pitch walk in the eighth inning, as the ball-four fastball barely missed the corner -- who was quickly wiped out in a double play. It was a performance of pure domination which reinforced that, when Verlander is at his best, he is the game's premier power pitcher and, with a bit more consistency, could emerge as the rightful heir apparent to Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens.
On closer examination, however, one can see a few shifts, subtle and otherwise, in Verlander's approach against the Blue Jays. The strikeout to end the game was only his fourth of the game. Contrast that with his 12 strikeouts in his first no-hitter back on June 12, 2007 against the Brewers.
Verlander also led the majors in pitches-per-start in 2009 and 2010 and is holding the early advantage again so far in 2011. His 81 starts of at least 110 pitches since 2007 are by far the most in baseball, eclipsing Roy Halladay in second place by 16, but the Tigers' workhorse showed on this Derby Day how to be far more economical.
In his four previous starts, Verlander had thrown an average of 119 pitches while only going six innings in three outings and seven innings in the fourth. Buoyed by an early 7-0 lead and the prospect of facing an admittedly short-handed lineup that lacked star Jose Bautista entirely and next-best hitter Adam Lind for the final time through the order, Verlander wasn't afraid to pitch to contact against the Jays, which kept his pitch count to a moderate 108.
"I felt like tonight I had really good control of my fastball, and I just used that to my advantage," Verlander told reporters in Toronto. "My breaking ball was surprisingly my worst pitch. That's probably indicative of why I didn't have many strikeouts. I was just able to move the ball around and keep guys off balance and get some quick outs."
The timing was impeccable, as just this week former Tigers pitcher Jack Morris, who threw his own no-hitter in 1984, offered a sharp critique of Verlander while speaking on MLB Network Radio.
"He might have the best stuff in the American League, and close to anybody in the National League," Morris said. "But he hasn't figured out how to maximize his effort yet.
"I wish I could get into his head and just slow him down because he's got the kind of stuff that he could throw one-, two-, three-hit ball every time he goes out there. I think he does really enjoy the strikeout, and sometimes, guys that enjoy the strikeout, I like to say this: 'You're never going to catch Nolan Ryan, so quit.'"
Ryan, of course, is the career record-holder in both strikeouts (5,714) and no-hitters (seven), but here Morris was alluding to the strikeout mark. The two are obviously not mutually exclusive, but his point was Verlander could eat more innings if he didn't try for as many strikeouts. Saturday, he induced 13 grounders and 10 flies, doubling his career groundball-to-flyball ratio of 0.68.
Verlander's father, Richard, who was attending his younger son's college baseball game in Wilmington, Del., and followed Justin's no-hitter on his phone, said he read Morris' comments earlier Saturday morning and thought back to them when he saw the four-strikeout linescore.
"I thought that was really ironic that I read that and thought about that just today," Richard Verlander said by telephone, before adding with a laugh: "Maybe Jack talked to him."
Justin Verlander's best friend, Daniel Hicks, even said Justin mentioned his escalating pitch counts in a recent conversation. It's noteworthy that Verlander only had four strikeouts in his other complete game this year, a 2-0 loss to the Rangers on April 11.
But the evolution of Verlander has been under way for a few years. The 28-year-old is smart, introspective and unafraid to make changes in both his mechanics and his preseason preparation. He has changed his offseason lifting and throwing program several times. This year, both Hicks and his father said, Verlander spent more time in his native Virginia -- where he worked out daily and played 18 holes about as often, walking the course rather than carting -- before heading to the Tigers' training site in Lakeland, Fla. And the type of work he did, Richard Verlander said of his son, was to get more "game ready."
Even in games Verlander has been a different pitcher in the past two seasons, perhaps over relying on his fastball a couple years ago, throwing it more than two-thirds of the time in 2009. But in 2010 he began weaning himself off the fastball, his rate of using it falling from 67.9 percent to 58.6 percent. That has carried over into 2011 where he entered the start featuring the fastball 58.1 percent of the time.
And in 2009 Verlander reinvented himself as the Vermonster, bringing increased focus to his pre-start preparation, an every-fifth-day shuttering of the outside world that remains part of his routine.
So while Morris said Verlander hasn't learned to maximize his effort, that's not quite fair. Verlander's effort and dedication to being the best possible pitcher he can be should never be in question, as all of these changes show. But he is still trying to maximize his elite abilities on a consistent basis.
Upon completion of his no-hitter on Saturday, Verlander gave an understated fist pump and allowed a smile. Act like you've been there before, they say, and few can make that claim with no-hitters, as Verlander became just the 30th pitcher in major league history to throw more than one.
And, given his talent and desire to improve, he may get to act like this again.