Verlander making resounding statement
AL strikeout leader turns 17 losses into 17 victories
DETROIT -- All those questions about Justin Verlander's health last year are long gone. It's not even a mention for one of the greats who wondered it aloud.
While Jack Morris was at Comerica Park on Monday to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Tigers' 1984 World Series champions, the Tigers' youngster who has earned more than a few comparisons to him was in line for a start Tuesday night that could help determine whether the 2009 Tigers get to the postseason.
Not since Morris has a Tigers pitcher led the league in strikeouts, but Verlander has this year's title pretty much wrapped up, with 256 compared with Zack Greinke's 237.
Morris was the last Tiger to rack up more than 230 strikeouts in a season until Verlander flew past that mark earlier this month. He's now in the rarer 250-strikeout club, and he'll finish with the most strikeouts in a Detroit uniform in a season since Mickey Lolich fanned 308 in 1971.
Depending on how Verlander and the Tigers fare this week, he'll get a chance to share in another honor Morris reached in his Tigers career: Win a World Series.
Consider Morris already impressed.
"He's a great pitcher," Morris said Monday. "He's got ungodly talent. Detroit's lucky to have a guy like that, because everybody in baseball would like to have that."
In some ways, Morris has been a motivation for Verlander, but not in statistics or records. Morris, who works as an analyst on Twins broadcasts, watched Verlander in a start at the Metrodome last year during his early-season struggles and wondered about his health. Morris didn't see the same arm extension on Verlander's pitches as in years past, and considered it a potential sign that something didn't feel right.
Verlander, who was being peppered with questions about his drop velocity at that time, insisted he was fine, and he pitched through the rest of the season. The questions and the velocity, however, prompted him to change his offseason training routine to try more for flexibility than strength in his upper body.
Now, 224 innings and countless triple-digit pitches later, he's not only healthy, but strong. He has gone from 17 losses last year to 17 wins this season, and he has a postseason berth in sight.
Verlander still remembers the remark. But their one-time difference of opinion overshadows a few common traits between the two, besides the uniform. Like Verlander, Morris was a strong-willed, confident and sometimes fearless pitcher whose intensely competitive spirit drove him to greatness. And like Morris years ago, Verlander takes his role as a staff ace seriously, even if manager Jim Leyland downplays any numbering of starters on this year's club.
Asked how much that role drove him, Morris said, "Probably too much. But you know what? Those were all things that made me whoever the heck I was. And I took that as an honor. The ball was handed to me the first day, and I hoped that it was going to be handed to me the last day. It's my job to represent that. I don't know how to eloquently describe it, but it's an honor. It's an absolute honor."
It's an honor, too, for Verlander, one that takes on critical importance in this final week. More than a quarter of Detroit's victories, 21 of 83, have come in Verlander's starts. Two more won't get Verlander to a 20-win season like Morris had, but it would help put Detroit in the postseason.
Morris will gladly credit Verlander, but he'll still watch his outings. Ironically, after Verlander took a hard-luck loss to the Twins on Sept. 19 at the Metrodome, Morris looked at the velocity.
"The funny thing about his game in Minnesota the other night, is after the fifth inning, it was nothing but fastballs," Morris said. "That's all he threw was fastballs. And it made it hard for him, even though it was mid-90s [mph] or a 95-plus fastball. If he flips a slider in the dirt, he doesn't know how easy his life can be. I know, more than likely, it's the fact that he didn't have confidence in throwing it for a strike [that night]. He doesn't have to, but he needs to show it.
"He pitched way good enough to win, no question. Somehow that game ended up in Minnesota's hands, and it did not deserve to be. But from the Minnesota side, they were very thankful for that."
Verlander can return the favor Tuesday night.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.