Verlander focused more on fine-tuning than homers

Despite allowing trio of long balls, Tigers ace says fastball is trending upward; slider needs work

Verlander focused more on fine-tuning than homers

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Justin Verlander's first pitch of the fourth inning Sunday hit 89 mph on the Joker Marchant Stadium radar gun on its way to the plate. It hit the right-field light tower on its way out, one of three home runs off Verlander to lead off three consecutive innings.

In that sense, the results game, Verlander had a rough afternoon, allowing five runs on five hits over 4 1/3 innings in his fourth Spring Training start during the Tigers' 7-7 tie with the Nationals. In the pitching sense, he felt better.

He isn't where he wants, not close. He also isn't dreading where he is.

"I'm not there yet," he said. "I think the overall trend is what I want, especially with my fastball. It's been getting better every start. It's just fine-tuning location with that and offspeed pitches."

The mercurial radar gun at the stadium had Verlander's fastball everywhere from 90 to 96 mph. Even if it wasn't consistently accurate, it seemed to mark an improvement for Verlander, leaving more of a question as to what degree.

"Usually I've got to get stronger through spring, and this is probably the best my fastball has been since Seattle last year," said Verlander, referring to his May 30 meeting against the Mariners in which he hit 98 mph on the Safeco Field radar gun and registered 95 consistently.

His first home run allowed was a 92 mph full-count offering on the outside corner at the knees that Michael Taylor sent to the opposite field over the right-field fence. An inning later, he threw the aforementioned fastball up and in to Ian Stewart, who hit the light tower. Verlander tried to change his approach to Taylor to start the fifth, going offspeed repeatedly, but left a 1-2 slider for him to put on the left-field berm.

It's the slider that was Verlander's bigger concern.

"It was 50 percent better than last time," Verlander said. "Half of them were really good. Half of them weren't good at all. But that's a lot better than it was last time out. I was pretty encouraged by the good ones. It's just getting a feel for it now and being able to throw consistently good ones."

The home runs left him trailing for much of his outing, and fighting his case. He had an animated discussion with catcher Alex Avila and manager Brad Ausmus at the top of the Tigers' dugout after a 24-pitch second inning, saying afterwards it was about a pickoff call. He had at least five discussions with home-plate umpire Jerry Layne over the strike zone, none of them heated but all of them seemingly inquisitive.

"Just the strike zone, just trying to figure it out," he said.

Just over half of those two dozen second-inning pitches went for strikes, as did 15 of his 28 pitches in the third. He threw just under 80 pitches for the day, bargaining his way past the 70-pitch mark so he could test the fifth inning.

He'll take one more start to tinker with the slider some more, then plans to treat his final tuneup like a regular-season game. That will be in the middle of next week at some point. From there, the numbers will start to matter, not just the stuff.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.