by | Aug 9, 2006 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

You hear maybe a half a dozen theories as to why the Tigers won’t keep up their amazing performance this year. The Tigers love those theories, the way that Johnny Depp in the latest “Pirates” movie says he loves moments that test his character – he loves to wave at them as they pass by.

This team has waved at most of those failure theories, too: Just a lucky streak. Can’t do it against good teams. Their hitting will cool down. Their pitchers can’t stay consistent. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

One theory, however, that hangs around like a moth at a porch light bulb is that young arms are unpredictable and susceptible.

That one they haven’t exploded yet.

Which explains why rookie Justin Verlander was sitting on his stool earlier this week, checking a computer inside his locker. He looked as fresh as a college kid going over his e-mail. Maybe that’s because he hadn’t pitched his normal rotation spot the day before, as he likely would have had he not been so, well …young.

“The trainers and the coaching staff all felt like I could have gone out there and thrown,” he said, “but, you know, I think now is a good time to take a rest.”

It’s not often you hear 23-year-olds talk about taking a rest. Guys that age can eat pizza at 3 a.m., shower at 6 a.m., be at work at 7 a.m, stay out past midnight, and the worst that happens is their hair gets mussed.

But rookie pitchers have rookie arms, and Verlander was skipped in the rotation ostensibly because of arm soreness but more realistically because of fear of arm soreness.

“What’s the most innings you’ve ever pitched in a year?” I asked him.

“I think it was 130,” he said.

So far this season, he’s at 135.

“I’m in uncharted waters,” he said.

No need to get greedy

Of course, you could say that a million times about Verlander. In his first full season, the kid has blown the roof off of expectations. He’s 14-4. He has a 2.79 ERA. He is – or should be – mentioned in Cy Young and rookie of the year conversations. As time goes on, he is perceived as the staff ace.

Uncharted waters? Not too long ago, Verlander was riding in buses and eating at the Steak ‘n Egg. He began last year at A ball. The year before that, he was a junior at Old Dominion. Most people can’t tell you where Old Dominion is. But they can tell you it’s a long way from the World Series.

Which, of course, is where the Tigers want to be this year – with Verlander in the rotation. But he has to survive a full season.

Monday night, as Verlander watched from his well-rested perch, a 22-year-old Twins rookie named Francisco Liriano – one of the hottest pitchers in baseball – left the game after four innings. Sore forearm. He might be going to the DL.

“Pitchers can fool you,” Jim Leyland said Tuesday. “Liriano, before he went out, was throwing 95-96 miles per hour. … We just decided that Verlander was at that innings point that this was the right time. … If you can freshen him up now and hopefully have him for September, I think that’s better than getting greedy.”

Many cautionary tales

Baseball is littered with pitchers who threw barrels of innings in their early years and were never the same: Kerry Wood, Steve Avery, Mark Pryor, to name just a few. In those cases, the damage was measured deeper into their careers. With Verlander, the Tigers are trying to measure as they go along. He’s so good, you want to use him. He’s so good, you don’t want to lose him.

“The thing is, every pitcher that’s ever pitched at some point is a pitch away from hurting himself,” Leyland admitted.

So they make their best evaluation. For now, all Verlander knows is that he’s scheduled to pitch Friday against the White Sox.

“I think one off is good, but one on, one off, that wouldn’t be good at all. That’s not what you want.”

He plans to throw as hard as usual. He’s not thinking about a flameout. He says the season doesn’t even seem that long to him yet, a common complaint from rookies.

“I’m having fun.” He smiled. “It’s really going fast.”

Not too fast, the Tigers hope. They want to wave bye-bye to doubters, not starters.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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