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Verlander hoping to improve - if that's possible

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LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) - Justin Verlander fielded grounders at the mound and threw easily to first base - a reminder that even baseball's most dynamic stars have to start the season with the same tedious drills as everyone else.

For Verlander, 2011 is in the past. It's time to look forward.

"You guys know me. You know how competitive I am," the talented right-hander said. "Having one great year isn't going to change anything. If anything, it makes me want to be better."

Verlander celebrated his 29th birthday Monday, the day Detroit's pitchers and catchers worked out for the first time at spring training. After winning the AL Cy Young Award and MVP last year, he still hopes the best is yet to come.

He is determined to keep working hard. Especially since as good as he was, his team came up a bit short last season, losing to Texas in the AL championship series.

Detroit signed slugger Prince Fielder in the offseason and will try to defend its AL Central title and go further in the postseason.

"Last year we expected greatness - fell a little bit short," Verlander said. "I think everybody's excited with the Prince signing, but I don't think we expect any more or less out of ourselves. I think every year we come here expecting a World Series title, at least since I've been here."

Verlander went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA in 2011, a season that also included a no-hitter. Detroit catcher Gerald Laird observed Verlander's performance from afar. He played for the Tigers from 2009-10 before spending 2011 with St. Louis. The Tigers brought Laird back for this season, so he'll be Verlander's teammate again.

"You always knew he had that season in him, it was just a matter of when he was going to it," Laird said. "Last year it all came together for him, and he helped lead this team to an American League championship series. He's obviously the best in the game."

Verlander was in high demand this offseason, appearing on the cover of a video game and showing up on Conan O'Brien's show to promote it. Still, he understood it was important to avoid overextending himself.

Manager Jim Leyland wasn't concerned.

"I think Justin really has a handle on things. ... I'm really proud of the way he's handled everything," Leyland said. "They're grown men. They've got to do what they need to do. You want them to experience that. He did something special. He deserved to get some special attention."

With the focus now on the upcoming season, Verlander says he is constantly fine-tuning his spring training routine, and he's eager to prove he can keep pitching effectively despite a heavy workload.

Verlander threw 3,941 pitches - the most in baseball - in 34 starts in 2011. And that doesn't even count the postseason.

"I want to go deep into the postseason again," he said. "There's stuff to be said about guys going deep into the postseason, throwing a lot of innings and getting tired. But there's also the other end of the spectrum - the great ones that don't have that affect them. You can talk about that all you want, but you can also bring up ... the Roger Clemenses, Nolan Ryans - the guys that got better with age and got better after long seasons."

At 6-foot-5, Verlander has the build to keep throwing hard - highlights of him throwing triple-digit fastballs in the late innings became almost routine last season. The only problem was he didn't have the chance to do it on the biggest possible stage. His team was eliminated two wins short of a pennant.

"It was a great year, yeah, but it was last year," Verlander said. "And the ultimate goal wasn't achieved, which was a World Series title."

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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