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Verlander starts better than ever, looks like he may stay there

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Justin Verlander's career ERA before May 1 was 4.75, compared to 3.33 from May 1 on. (US Presswire)  
Justin Verlander's career ERA before May 1 was 4.75, compared to 3.33 from May 1 on. (US Presswire)  

DETROIT -- At the end of April a year ago, Justin Verlander's ERA ranked 59th among major-league starters.

You might consider that totally insignificant. He didn't.

You might look at a season that ended with a Cy Young and a Most Valuable Player award and say it's hard to find fault. Verlander found fault.

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No, he doesn't want to repeat 2011, or "pitch to an encore," as he put it Thursday. By his standards, April 2011 was unacceptable.

Through one start, April 2012 is not ... I think.

Perhaps Verlander thinks he should have allowed no hits in eight shutout innings Thursday against the Red Sox, rather than the two he gave up. Perhaps he thinks he could have found a way to make it nine innings, rather than eight (although he said he found no fault with manager Jim Leyland for pulling him after 105 pitches, and none with closer Jose Valverde for the blown save that cost Verlander -- but not the Tigers -- a win).

Perhaps, except that after the Tigers' 3-2 win, Verlander said that this felt like a continuation of last year.

And he didn't mean last April.

This was an eventful opening day for both these teams, one that could have left you with new questions about either team's bullpen, or maybe with renewed hope for Tigers leadoff hitter Austin Jackson (three hits, including the game-winning single in the ninth). It gave questioning Red Sox's fans a touch more reason to worry, and gave giddy Tiger fans a touch more evidence that this could be a special year.

Within a month, or even within days, none of that may be relevant. I'm guessing that what we saw from Verlander on Thursday will be.

Yes, this did look like a continuation of last year, when from his May 7 no-hitter to the end of the season, Verlander was baseball's best pitcher. This looked exactly like the Verlander we saw so many times last summer, the one who leaves hitters shaking their heads, the one who leaves the rest of us marveling at how incredibly good he is.

There was the fastball that hit 97 mph when he needed it to (but no 100s on this day). There was the curveball that the hitters can't pull the trigger on -- but can't hit even when they do.

"We knew he was good, and he's still real good, in case anyone was wondering," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said.

Verlander has been like this before, but never on opening day and very rarely in the season's first month. His career ERA before May 1 was 4.75, as opposed to 3.33 from May 1 on.

And even though he said Thursday that he felt in previous Aprils "I was throwing well, but didn't get results," Verlander has spent the last two years trying hard to improve those results.

The answer, he decided, was to treat spring training as much like the regular season as possible. He went to his following his regular-season routine all through March, and began treating the spring games as much as possible like they counted.

"He wanted to almost make it seem like the season started a month early," catcher Alex Avila said.

Or maybe more than a month early.

When Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones got to Lakeland this spring, he noticed how intense Verlander was in his bullpen sessions before spring training officially opened.

"He doesn't want to get off to a bad start," Jones told himself.

Avila noticed that Verlander's curveball was great from the first time he caught him this spring.

"Midseason form from Day 1," he told Verlander.

The Red Sox would no doubt agree. Verlander froze Cody Ross with a two-strike curve in the second inning Thursday, and later did the same to Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and Ryan Sweeney. When David Ortiz swung at a ridiculous two-strike curve with two on and two out in the sixth, he missed it.

The result was easily the best of Verlander's five career opening-day starts. The result was that Comerica Park rocked to chants of "MVP! MVP!" when Verlander walked off the mound after the top of the eighth.

An inning earlier, Leyland told Verlander that 110 pitches was the absolute limit on this day, ending any possible Verlander argument before it could even begin. The eventual Tiger win saved Leyland from much criticism, and the Tiger manager could even say later that he considered it almost a blessing that Valverde's streak of 51 consecutive converted saves came to an end.

Baseball rules insist that Valverde gets credit for a win along with his blown save, which means I'll no doubt hear again from those who consider the pitcher's win to be a completely useless stat (and on this day, they're 100 percent right).

I should also hear from all of those people I've told for years that spring training results are meaningless. Verlander, it seems, is in the process of proving me (somewhat) wrong.

By treating spring training like it matters, he seems ready to treat April like he treats June, July, August and September. If so, that can only mean that what Jones insisted to me in February could prove to be true; Verlander might be able to have a better year than he did last year.

"The bottom line with him is he wants to be the best," Jones said Thursday. "Second-best is not good enough."

And 59th-best is totally unacceptable, even for a month.

For now, with an ERA of 0.00, Verlander is tied for the league lead. The way he looked Thursday, he may well stay on top.

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