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Verlander feels he's rounding into form at right time

Coming off impressive September, righty aims to give Tigers 2-0 lead in ALDS

OAKLAND -- The Tigers' decision not to lead with Justin Verlander in their American League Division Series against the Athletics naturally attracted a lot of attention. The big right-hander, after all, has one of the most glittering resumes of any starting pitcher.

The bottom line, though, is that for all his accomplishments, Verlander wasn't Detroit's best starter this season. Max Scherzer was. And Verlander is the first to admit it.

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"Max is the best pitcher in the American League. The only reason this is being brought up is what I've done over the last couple of years," Verlander said Friday night at Coliseum. "He absolutely earned this."

So the 2011 AL Cy Young Award and MVP award winner, a guy who had a 2.64 ERA last season, will have to wait until Game 2 (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, TBS) to make his first start of the series. A quick look at his numbers -- a 3.46 ERA, the Tigers' 3-11 record in his last 14 starts -- doesn't seem that impressive.

But in his last two starts, Verlander didn't allow a run. His September ERA was 2.27. Sometimes it's not how you start, it's how you finish. And he believes it might all be coming together for him at just the right time.

"I honestly don't look at myself any differently. We aren't robots, things aren't always perfect, and this is a season that opened my eyes to that fact," Verlander said. "The last couple of years came pretty easy to me, right from the Spring Training, from the jump street, it was like, 'OK, my pitches are good, go from here.'

"This year wasn't like that. I would fix something and that would cause a kink in the chain, and I would fix that. It was a matter of getting myself to where I need to do be. It was a year-long battle. I'm not going to lie. This is something I worked on from early in the season until a couple of weeks ago, and I felt like the last couple of starts were where I needed to be. It's funny that it took all year, but hopefully I figured it out and peaking at the right time."

Tale of the Tape: Game 2
Justin Verlander
Sonny Gray
2013 regular season
Overall: 34 GS, 13-12, 3.46 ERA, 75 BB, 217 SO Overall: 12 G, 10 GS, 5-3, 2.67 ERA, 20 BB, 67 SO
Key stat: Verlander ended the season on a high note, striking out 22 in 12 shutout innings in his last two starts. Key stat: With runners on base, Gray has held hitters to a .180 batting average and .290 slugging percentage.
At Coliseum
2013: 1 GS, 1-0, 1.50 ERA
Career: 10 GS, 5-4, 2.38 ERA
2013: 6 GS, 3-1, 1.99 ERA
Career: 6 GS, 3-1, 1.99 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 2 GS, 1-1, 3.27 ERA
Career: 15 GS, 8-6, 2.48 ERA
2013: N/A
Career: N/A
Loves to face: Eric Sogard, 0-for-7, 2 K
Hates to face:: Coco Crisp, 8-for-24, 2 2B
Loves to face: N/A
Hates to face:: N/A
Game Breakdown
Why he'll win: Verlander was dominant against the A's in last year's playoffs, going 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 16 innings. Why he'll win: Gray has pitched well at home, posting a 0.93 WHIP and striking out 38 in 40 2/3 innings while only giving up nine earned runs.
Pitcher beware: Verlander hasn't pitched at his usual elite level, ending the year with his highest ERA (3.46) and WHIP (1.31) since 2008. Pitcher beware: Gray has never pitched in the postseason and his last five starts were against teams with losing records.
Bottom line: Verlander must get ahead in counts. When he falls behind, hitters have a .995 OPS against him compared to a .453 OPS when he's ahead. Bottom line: It's important for Gray to set the tone early. This season, he owns a 5.10 ERA over the first three innings. Afterward, his ERA drops to 0.53.

Manager Jim Leyland said Verlander's season was "pretty good" and that it only paled in comparison to how high he had set the bar with his previous excellence.

"I think some of it probably was that it was not up to the standards that the national media and everybody was used to. So that probably comes as a little bit of a surprise," Leyland said. "Probably a little bit of it was lost in the fact that Scherzer has been unbelievable with his [21-3] record and everything. But he's still been an excellent pitcher for us. Anytime you can put him out there, we feel real good about that. He's been a lot better than his record shows."

Even more than the numbers, Verlander has been encouraged by the way hitters have reacted to his pitches.

"That's what you talk about, and it comes down to execution," he said. "I definitely felt like the adjustments I made helped me to pitch better. I've been working hard on figuring stuff out, tweaking stuff here and there because I knew I wasn't right. And I felt like the last couple starts, I was able to get to a point where I didn't have to think about anything out there on the mound except for execution and that let me clear my mind.

"Obviously the game plan is to not worry about anything but execution, but when you're working on so many things, that is in the back of your mind and you're trying to do the things you're working on. But once that muscle memory gets ingrained and you don't have to think about that any more at all, the only thing on my mind was the right pitch and to execute it."

Now that they won Game 1 behind a dominant performance from Max Scherzer, the Tigers love their chances with Verlander pitching Saturday and then the series moving to Comerica Park.

"Trust me, Verlander's going to try to match [Scherzer]," said right fielder Torii Hunter. "He's a competitor and he's going to give his best. And his best is always gooood for me. He's not pitching bad. He's pitching OK. But for him, it's just not Verlander. It's not Verlander-type pitching and I definitely think [Game 2] is going to be a different scene. He steps up when he needs to."

Added catcher Alex Avila: "Justin's stuff has never been the question mark. With him it's always been the command of his fastball. He needs that first and foremost. Everything has to play off the fastball. That's the best pitch with guys who throw mid- to upper 90s.

"When he's got his command with the fastball everything falls into place and then you'll see good games out of him. He had his stretches during the season where you could tell, 'He's got it.' Then some other times he just didn't have that command with it and you're having to battle with trying to find what works. And trying to get him back on track during the game."

During the season, Verlander walked an uncommonly high 3.1 batters per nine innings, suggesting command issues. At times his pitch count also rose because hitters were able to foul off pitches, something the A's are adept at.

"I don't think you can come up with a game plan to combat guys fouling off pitches. I think you just go out there and attack the strike zone, force them to be aggressive and put the ball in play," he said. "I don't think their game plan is to go up there and foul stuff off. That's not what they're looking to do. But these guys are patient hitters. They don't chase a lot and they don't swing and miss that often, a lot of them. So you're going to get foul balls, but it's not like I'm writing up a game plan to avoid foul balls.

"I want early contact and early outs, and when you get two strikes you want strikeouts. But you can't expand too much all the time trying to get a strikeout with two strikes either because like I said, these guys are patient. The main game plan really is to attack the strike zone and pound the strike zone as much as you can."

At times this year, Verlander said his deadline to get himself back on track was the postseason. There's evidence to suggest he met it.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for

Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander