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Motor City gas

Formidable Verlander provides the fuel that Tigers run on

By John Powers
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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DETROIT - Victor Martinez remembers the night the big kid from Goochland, Va., made his major league debut in Cleveland.

“The report we got on him was that this guy throws from 95 to 100,’’ said the Tigers designated hitter. “And we were like, what?’’

Who had ever heard of Justin Verlander until Detroit selected him second overall in the 2004 draft because the college righthander was eminently “projectable.’’

Seven years later, after 107 victories, two no-hitters, 1,215 strikeouts, a pitching “triple crown,’’ and an almost certain Cy Young Award, Verlander is being projected into the Hall of Fame. His club is back in the playoffs after a five-year absence and its ace is indisputably The Man in a city on the rebound.

“People don’t agree with me on much in this town,’’ said manager Jim Leyland, who will have Verlander on the mound in the Bronx tonight when his club takes on the Yankees in their Division Series opener. “But I have not found anybody who does not want me to start Verlander in the first game.’’

Leyland gave him the ball against St. Louis in 2006, when Verlander and Anthony Reyes became the first two rookies to start a World Series opener. The list of firsts or firsts-since is growing.

Verlander is the first Tiger to pitch two no-hitters since Virgil Trucks in 1952 and the first to win the pitching triple crown (wins, strikeouts, ERA) since Hal Newhouser in 1945. He’s also the first Tiger to win 24 games in a season since Mickey Lolich in 1971 and the first in the majors to do it since Randy Johnson in 2002.

Not that the man himself has been keeping track.

“Whenever my number’s called, I go out there and do whatever I possibly can to win that ballgame and do whatever else is necessary, whether it’s stopping a losing streak or saving our bullpen,’’ said Verlander. “Once the season is over, once the last pitch is thrown, hopefully once we’ve won a World Series, then I can look back and enjoy the success I’ve had this year.

“But as for right now, I don’t pay attention to the personal stuff.’’

Model of consistency Verlander came tantalizingly close to a ring five years ago when Detroit’s wild-card club knocked off New York and swept Oakland to make it to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1984. This year, after the Tigers breezed to their first divisional title in 24 years by 15 games over the Indians, the expectations are decidedly loftier.

“We didn’t sneak up on anybody this year,’’ said Verlander. “If we weren’t favorites, we were right up there on everybody’s board, so it’s not like we caught anybody by surprise. It’s a little bit different when you’ve got a target on your back.’’

Nor was Verlander going to go unnoticed, not after 19-9 and 18-9 campaigns. His May no-hitter at Toronto, where he took a perfect game into the eighth inning, was not an extraordinary outing for him.

“He’s been able to bring the kind of stuff he had that day basically on every start,’’ testified catcher Alex Avila.

Indeed, in his next start, Verlander took a no-hitter into the sixth against the Royals, then had one going into the eighth against the Indians a month later and yet another into the eighth against the Angels at the end of July.

“I usually start thinking about it after the third inning,’’ said Verlander, who has allowed three hits or fewer in nine of his outings.

For relentless reliability, nobody matches him. Verlander went at least six innings in all 34 of his starts, 28 of which were quality starts. And 16 of his victories came after Detroit losses.

“He’s definitely been unbelievable,’’ declared Brad Penny, who says that following Verlander in the rotation is the best job in baseball. “Without him, we probably wouldn’t be where we’re at.’’

Not that Verlander hasn’t had ample backup. Max Scherzer has won 15 games and Rick Porcello 14. Doug Fister, who was 3-12 when he arrived from Seattle at the end of July, has gone 8-1 with Detroit. And Jose Valverde, with a club-record 49 saves, is the league’s top closer.

“It always helps knowing that you have four other guys behind you and we’re all family here,’’ said Verlander. “So if I happen to falter, I know that the next guy’s going to go out there and hopefully pick me up.

“So I don’t really think about it as, ‘I’m the guy.’ I’m just the guy on my given day.’’

Picking a winner But Verlander is the reason nobody wanted the Tigers in a best-of-five series. He has developed into what the club hoped he’d be when they tapped him ahead of the likes of Jered Weaver. Verlander had been a significant high school prospect until he contracted strep throat at the beginning of his senior season.

“They were pretty interested from what I gather, but then they came out for my first couple of starts and I was throwing 86 miles an hour and you get written off pretty quick,’’ he recalled. “By the end of the year, I was back up to where I normally was, but there was nobody around to see it.’’

So Verlander went to Old Dominion, where he compiled solid numbers for a losing varsity. The three-year diversion might well have been beneficial.

“I’ve thought about that,’’ he said. “The only thing that might have changed is, I might have made it to the big leagues a little quicker, but might not have had the success I’ve had without the college polishing.’’

Verlander also wouldn’t have gotten to represent his country, which he did after his sophomore season when he was the ace for the US team that won the silver medal behind the Cubans at the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic.

“That was a great experience,’’ said Verlander, who was 5-1 with a 1.29 ERA. “It carries a lot of pride wearing your country’s letters on your chest, so that meant a great deal. It was kind of like the Olympics for us.’’

Verlander wasn’t the top pitching prospect in 2004 - Baseball America had four others ranked ahead of him. But Detroit scouting director Greg Smith loved what he saw: “a big durable guy with a tremendous upside’’.

“Verlander was his guy at the beginning and he was his guy at the end,’’ said Tigers president Dave Dombrowski, whose franchise was coming off a worst-ever 119-loss season and couldn’t afford a first-round bust. “He never wavered, he never swayed. I asked him lots of questions, pushed him here, pushed him there, and it was always that he was the best guy.’’

Verlander was 6 feet 5 inches, 200 pounds, and had a fastball pushing 100 miles an hour and a natural curve. The glitches in his mechanics could easily be fixed. What the club especially liked about him were his work ethic and his competitiveness.

“Our people thought he had a tremendous makeup,’’ said Dombrowski. “We didn’t think he’d ever be content in what he was achieving. We always thought he would strive to get better.’’

A science to pitching While the Tigers figured that Verlander would progress quickly, nobody figured that he’d go 17-9 in his first full year up, be named Rookie of the Year, and pitch in four playoff games. He was even better in 2007, going 18-6 to lead the league in winning percentage (the first Tiger since Denny McLain in 1968), no-hitting the Brewers, and making the All-Star team.

Then came the humbling - an 11-17 record in 2008 with a 4.84 ERA - and the beginning of Verlander’s evolution.

“When he first came up, he was showing everybody how good his stuff was,’’ said Leyland. “Then he had that setback and he learned that you have to constantly make adjustments up here.

“He’s figured out that you don’t have to throw 99 miles an hour every pitch to get an out, that you can pitch to contact a little bit more.’’

Verlander’s repertoire now includes a slider that he’s not afraid to throw to finish off a no-hitter, as he did against the Blue Jays. And he has learned how to pace himself, not only throughout the season (thus his rigorous winter workouts) but also in a game.

“If his pitch count is really high, he kind of tones it down a little bit, backs it off and tries to get quick one- and two-pitch outs, which allows him to go seven innings,’’ said Avila.

That’s what Verlander did in his final regular-season outing. After the Orioles banged him around for five runs in the first three innings, he hunkered down, dialed things back, and got through seven, saving the bullpen and giving his mates a chance. That was more important to him than a milestone 25th victory.

“I don’t set personal goals,’’ said Verlander. “A good for-instance would be 20 wins. Let’s say I set that goal this year and it’s not even September yet and I’m there, then what happens? Subconsciously, you might ease off the gas pedal a little bit.’’

That’s never been his style. If anything, Verlander amps things up as he goes.

“The most impressive thing for me is later in the game he starts throwing harder,’’ said Martinez. “I don’t know how he does it.’’

The high octane was there when Martinez first got a whiff of Verlander’s stuff and cranked it for a double a half-dozen years ago, but it since has been refined and blended for extended performance.

“It is what it is now, man,’’ Martinez said. “And he’s just getting better.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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