Verlander's nasty curveball draws high praise
Besides bringing heat, right-hander's hook leaves batters stymied
DETROIT -- The called third strike is, in some ways, an anticlimax unto itself. It delivers no dazzling defensive stop, results in no heroic homer and doesn't even have the satisfying swoosh of nothingness that is a swing and a miss.
But when it's a curveball called for strike three -- a distracting delivery that hangs suspended for a flash in time, then dashes out of view -- well, that possesses a certain beauty.
Especially when it comes from the arm of the reigning American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner and is used to stifle one of the game's more leviathan lineups.
What Justin Verlander did to the Red Sox on Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park borders on criminal. For it's one thing to face an amped-up arm coming off a historic season in front of a big and boisterous crowd. But add in the complexity of the curve at this obnoxiously early stage -- a stage when, if results around the league are any indication, "the pitchers are ahead of the hitters," as they say -- and it's simply not fair.
Detroit beat Boston, 3-2, on Opening Day on the might of Austin Jackson's bottom-of-the-ninth RBI grounder down the third-base line, Danny Worth streaking home with the winning run to erase the sour taste of Jose Valverde's first blown save in ages. And the Tigers won it -- manager Jim Leyland was quick to note -- in no small part due to the defensive pick-me-ups provided by Prince Fielder at first base, scooping a pair of low throws out of the dirt.
But the backbone of the victory was a familiar one: Justin Verlander's dominance. And that dominance was the direct result of a curveball that is well ahead of its time, in terms of the season schedule.
"I told him that his curveball's been in midseason form from Day 1 of Spring Training," said catcher Alex Avila.
And for a guy with a particularly tough act to follow -- himself -- that's an awfully encouraging sign.
Realistically, Verlander can't be counted upon to repeat his 24-5 record of a year ago. Even he acknowledges as much.
"One of the things I tell myself is not to worry about repeating last year," Verlander said. "I'm just trying to be a better pitcher. I could be a better pitcher and not have the same stats."
And this game was proof positive. After all, Verlander never had to watch a late lead wilt in Valverde's hands last year.
So Verlander, for the second straight spring, approached his Grapefruit League outings with the seriousness of the season. He didn't waste pitches, didn't let himself get in hitters' counts just to work on this pitch or that. His goal then was, as it is now, to use his stuff to the best of his ability on that particular day and give his club a chance to win.
This is Verlander's retaliation toward his history of slow April starts. Last year, it resulted in a March and April ERA of 3.64 that was an improvement over past years, though still pedestrian when compared with all that followed.
This year? Well, one start does not a trend make, but suffice to say Verlander was encouraged by the eight scoreless innings he tossed against those Boston bats.
"Pretty good so far," he said with a smile.
And it was all about the breaking ball.
Verlander turned to it in the second inning, with two out and David Ortiz, who had led off with a double, at third. Facing Cody Ross, Verlander fell behind 3-1, got Ross looking at a slider to put the count full and then reared back and fired off a 98-mph four-seamer.
Ross fouled it off.
What happened next is what separates the reality of Verlander from the most general reputation of Verlander. We think of that high-90s heat by default, but it's the ability to deliver a devastating curve -- one that Ross could only stand and helplessly admire -- in these two-strike counts that takes him from that level of really good to truly great.
"That's what makes him so tough," Avila said. "His fastball and his curveball have the same arm angle, but then the curveball comes in from a higher plane and drops down into the zone."
It happened to Ross in the second. It happened to Adrian Gonzalez in the fourth. And it happened to Kevin Youkilis and Ryan Sweeney in succession to open the seventh. All four men were caught looking by the curve.
But as beautiful as that anticlimax can be, there was one swing-and-a-miss that loomed large. It happened in the sixth. Miguel Cabrera made a circus catch of a Jacoby Ellsbury popup in foul territory and drew a chuckle, but he made little attempt to snare a Dustin Pedroia scorcher to his left side and was given an error. It was a tough call, but either way, the fact remained that this was the first of what could be many tests for the Tigers' pitching staff with Miggy at third.
Verlander walked Gonzalez to put two on with two out, and Ortiz came to the plate, looking to break what was still a scoreless tie. It was an 0-2 count when Verlander turned to the curve, an 82-mph hammer that Ortiz feebly hacked at.
"That is why he's been pitching the way he's been pitching in his career," said Ortiz. "His breaking ball does all kinds of stuff. The good thing about the game is you don't have to face him every day."
This was a good day for the Tigers. They got that first victory out of the way (ask the 2008 Tigers or the 2011 Red Sox how nice it would have been to have an opening win to align with the grand expectations), they saw early returns on the Fielder acquisition, they got a heroic hit from the bat of their leadoff man and perhaps there was even value in Valverde finally blowing one so that people can stop talking about the streak.
More than anything, though, they had Verlander and his curve at their sharpest, right from the start.
And there's nothing anticlimactic about that.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.