DETROIT -- Justin Verlander spent much of his Spring Training trying to get his pitches close to midseason form and avoid the slow Aprils that have befallen him in the past, even during his Cy Young contention years. It wasn't about winning awards, but about helping the Tigers avoid the kind of slow start that troubled them last year and could send them into rebuilding mode if they fall out of contention this year.
As he searched in vain for fastball command early in his Monday afternoon duel with Chris Sale -- an eventual 2-1 Tigers win -- looking for another pitch he could spot for a strike without getting pummeled, he reached into his back pocket for a curveball.
"It's not easy," Verlander said. "That's a pitch you just have to kind of trust. It's one of the hardest pitches to throw for a strike consistently. It's one of the hardest pitches to get called for a strike consistently. You really just have to commit to it."
With the Red Sox on the verge of a second-inning rally, he didn't have much of a choice.
"I think the use of the curveball was more of a necessity today," Verlander said.
The pitch he found was the curveball he normally drops on hitters in June and July. It was a reflection of the work he put in during Spring Training to get his secondary pitches right from his first few starts, instead of after a handful of them.
"I felt like he was further ahead with his curveball this Spring Training than he was last year," catcher James McCann said.
Verlander threw 53 fastballs and 32 curveballs Monday, according to Statcast™. But while he threw the two for nearly the same ratio of strikes, and two swing-and-misses each, the vast majority of strikes off the fastball were pitches that Red Sox hitters fouled off or put in play, including two of his three hits allowed.
By contrast, 10 of Verlander's 32 curveballs went for called strikes, including a third strike on Mitch Moreland to end the sixth inning -- the only time the Tigers retired Moreland all day.
"Early on everything was out of whack, and the curveball had pretty good bite to it," Verlander said. "They weren't really swinging at it early in the game, so I just kept throwing it and got a better feel for it as the game went along, was able to mix it in for strikes and expand when I wanted to.
"I would say the curveball probably saved my day today."
It's an adjustment the younger Verlander, even the more recent Verlander, might not have made -- or been able to.
"The good ones have the ability to get back in the count with a secondary pitch," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said, "because you can't keep pumping heaters in fastball counts when you're behind. Hitters generally aren't looking to swing the bat in a 2-0, 1-0, 2-1 count on the curveball. They want to hit the fastball. So I do think the really good pitchers have the ability to throw a secondary pitch for a strike to get them back into counts when they get behind. And it's huge when it's in a big situation."
Verlander still has work to do with his slider, and his changeup didn't do much for him Monday, either. But with warm weather forecast for this weekend in Cleveland, where Verlander is scheduled to make his next start on Saturday, he'll have conditions in his favor to have a feel for his curve.
Moreover, he has put in the work for it.