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Verlander shows promise in first '15 start

Righty pitches five solid innings in season debut, looks to keep improving

DETROIT -- When Justin Verlander worked himself into a jam in the fifth inning Saturday afternoon against the Indians during his season debut, the Tigers' right-hander dialed up the heat.

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On his final pitch of the night, a 95-mph fastball, Verlander retired first baseman Carlos Santana on a lineout and finished his first Major League action of 2015 having allowed two runs on three hits over 87 pitches. He didn't earn a decision in Detroit's 5-4 loss.

Was it all there for Verlander during his first appearance with Detroit after starting the season on the disabled list?

"Not quite," he said, smiling. "Not quite."

The righty displayed good command of his curveball and changeup while largely avoiding his slider -- which he said was "not quite where I want it." In the fifth, though, when Verlander's fastball touched 97 mph on the stadium gun, he began to lose his consistency, allowing a single sandwiched between two walks to load the bases with one out for Cleveland.

Second baseman Jason Kipnis followed with a sacrifice fly, but Verlander avoided further damage when Santana's drive found J.D. Martinez's glove in right field.

Video: [email protected]: Urshela races home on Kipnis' sac fly in 5th

"When I tried to step on the gas a little bit, fell out of rhythm a little bit and walked a couple guys," Verlander said. "That's more effort than I've had to put in yet, so it kind of makes sense why the rhythm wasn't quite there."

The Indians made solid contact against Verlander, who stayed out of trouble in the first inning when center fielder Anthony Gose robbed Michael Brantley of extra bases with a diving catch. But in the fourth, first baseman Santana drove an elevated fastball out of everyone's reach and into the right-field seats.

Video: [email protected]: Gose makes outstanding diving grab in 1st

Still, Brad Ausmus was impressed with Verlander, who had tossed just 8 1/3 competitive innings with Triple-A Toledo before rejoining Detroit's rotation. The Tigers' manager also praised his pitcher's velocity, saying it's "better than it was last season."

"It's nice to see the ball come out of my hand that way," Verlander said. "But I haven't done it in a while, so the mechanics and the feel of it wasn't quite there."

Verlander said his extended stay on the disabled list has forced him to become more patient, an understandable response to having seen his return to Detroit incrementally get pushed back from early April into the middle of June. So, when he and Ausmus discussed whether Verlander should return for the sixth inning on Saturday, the righty agreed to letting the bullpen take over.

"Moving forward, a couple starts down the road, it would be a no-brainer," he said. "But right now, I think it was a smart move."

Alejandro Zúñiga is an associate reporter for Follow him on Twitter @ByAZuniga.
Read More: Detroit Tigers