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Verlander's Arm Keeps Tigers in Race

September 17, 2006|Larry Lage | Associated Press

DETROIT — Justin Verlander has had a sensational season, overpowering hitters with 100 mph pitches while winning 16 games and helping the Detroit Tigers stay atop the formidable AL Central division for most of the season.

But he's still a rookie. One start after a key victory over the Minnesota Twins, Verlander had his shortest outing in months Wednesday night in a loss to Texas.

As the free-falling Tigers struggle to hold on for their first playoff spot since 1987, they'll be counting heavily on Verlander -- who already has pitched about 60 innings more than he ever had in a season. And Verlander is trying to keep the same attitude that he had while blowing away batters in June or July.

"It's been fun up to now, and we need to just continue to make it fun," Verlander said in an interview with the Associated Press. "We worked so hard to get to this point, so why wouldn't you have fun?

"We're on the doorstep for where we want to be, and you can't ask for more than that. There is some pressure, and we're not used to that here, but I think we all welcome it."

Verlander, the first rookie to win 16 games since Colorado's Jason Jennings in 2002, ranks among AL leaders with a 3.42 ERA. The 23-year-old right-hander overwhelms hitters with his fastball, fools them with a changeup that is 10 mph slower with the same arm motion as his fastball, and makes opponents flinch with a wicked curveball.

"He's special because he has stuff few pitchers have at any age," said 41-year-old teammate Kenny Rogers, another member of the Detroit rotation. "But what's really remarkable is how he's competed at this level as a young pitcher, because you don't expect that."

Verlander came through last week when the staggering Tigers desperately needed a win at Minnesota. He allowed one run over seven innings to give Detroit its only win in a four-game series against the AL Central rival.

"He was nasty," Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said.

But Verlander (16-8) struggled Wednesday night, giving up six runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Rangers -- his shortest outing since April. He likely will have three more regular-season starts, with the final one perhaps coming with a playoff spot and the AL Rookie of the Year award on the line.

Detroit has made a stunning turnaround following 12 straight losing seasons, and Verlander has been one of the keys. He comes across as coolly confident on and off the field.

"One of the things we've been very impressed with is his composure," Tigers pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said. "He doesn't fear anything. Most young pitchers have a tendency to overdo things, but when he gets in a tough spot, he controls his emotions."

The Tigers and Verlander are pleased he has been able to pitch the way he has late in the season, while some other rookies have faltered or been injured. He's already pitched 176 1/3 innings.

Fans were worried when the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Verlander missed a turn in the rotation five weeks ago because of arm fatigue and was roughed up for nine runs in his next two starts. Some of Detroit's long-suffering followers immediately thought of Mark Fidrych, who won 19 games as a rookie in 1976 only to retire four years later because of injuries.

"I knew it wasn't anything major," Verlander said. "The team was being cautious, and it's worked out well."

Manager Jim Leyland agreed.

"It looks like hopefully that rest we gave him has paid dividends, because he's gotten stronger each time," Leyland said.

The Tigers drafted Verlander second overall in the June 2004 draft, but it took four months to sign him. Even though the team at one point threatened to give up on discussions, Hall of Famer Al Kaline -- now a special assistant to Tigers president Dave Dombrowski -- said the franchise never worried about letting a potential star get away.

"We knew he was going to sign, because he wasn't going to sit out a year," Kaline said. "And they knew we had an owner who would give them what they wanted because he wants to win."

Verlander had a 1.29 ERA last season -- the lowest among all minor leaguers -- at Class-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. He also got a taste of the majors, going 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA in two spot starts.

He won the final spot in the Detroit rotation during spring training and has been with the Tigers all season, just two years removed from his junior season at Old Dominion.

"The good thing for him is that he started up here and he's had a process of being in a lot of situations throughout the year," said the Twins' Gardenhire, who marveled at Verlander's command of his three pitches. "You can see how much it's helped him being here from day one."

Rogers said Verlander already has cleared one of the toughest hurdles for a rookie pitcher.

"He's really learning how difficult it is to go through a season feeling good only most of the time," Rogers said. "He's probably used to feeling great all of the time."

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