Justin Verlander struggling to figure out timing in first ‘normal’ spring training since 2019

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PORT ST. LUCIE — Justin Verlander can’t remember whether he’s on time or not. It’s been so long since he’s experienced anything that could be considered typical or usual in spring training that he’s struggling to figure out the timing of his progression toward the season.

“I’ve kind of forgotten exactly where I’m supposed to be,” Verlander joked Sunday at Clover Park. “It’s the first normal spring since 2019. So for me, so I’ve had to ask my agent and pitching coaches, ‘Hey, where was I at this time in this year?’ I can’t remember where I need to be.”

Who can blame him? Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockout, baseball hasn’t seen normalcy in spring training since 2019. Even this year isn’t quite as normal as years past considering the implementation of new rules and the World Baseball Classic.

But Verlander is on track.

He threw live batting practice with a pitch clock Sunday at Clover Park ahead of the Mets’ Grapefruit League game against the Washington Nationals, his second of the spring and his first with the pitch clock and with hitters swinging. It was a step he needed to take to get his body feeling ready for game action.

“The up and down is important,” Verlander said. “I feel like my bullpens, I intentionally go pretty hard and fast and, throw usually run out something like 50 to 55 pitches before I ever take a game mound. So just throwing isn’t a problem for me — the up and down is something that you need to get used to. Sitting your body cool down and getting back up, so that, and then game speed timing is most important.

“Health is important, but then getting your timing at game speed is something that can only come with game reps.”

Game reps will come next with Verlander planning to pitch in a Grapefruit League game in “five to six days” and he previously said he would like to make five spring training starts. He also hopes to throw his changeup more often, seeing it as a weapon against right-handed hitters.

As for the pitch clock, he anticipates it feeling different in a game but didn’t have any problems throwing within the allotted time Sunday.

“I started just going about my business and didn’t even pay attention to it,” Verlander said. “Then all of a sudden, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got this clock thing.’ So I looked up almost every time that I was about ready and I had plenty of time. Much like I thought would happen, it wasn’t much of an issue for me.”

Verlander might be a 17-year veteran but there is still a lot of newness for him this spring. It’s the first time he’s been in camp with a new team to start the season. He likened it to being a new kid at a new high school — something he did experience as a teenager — and it’s also the first time in a few years that he hasn’t faced questions about his health.

Verlander had groin surgery on March 17, 2020, and was shut down to have Tommy John surgery later in the season. Last season felt like an “extension of his rehab” and he had to learn to test his elbow and how to deal with the reactions and results to those tests. Verlander won the AL Cy Young Award after going 18-4 with a 1.75 ERA and a 2.49 FIP and helped the Astros win a World Series, so clearly it reacted well, but Verlander was conscious of not overdoing it and pushing the elbow to its limits.

“Every time I went to a new effort level or new velocity or introduced new pitches, there was always a little bit of a reaction where the elbow would just get a little bit stiff and a little swollen as I introduced a new stimulus,” he said. “So that happened to me at the beginning of last season as well, which I viewed that as like a flashing yellow in your car [saying], ‘Hey, don’t be stupid, and try to rush to the beginning of the season and try to throw 120 pitches right out the gate.’”

So far, Verlander’s elbow has not reacted the way it did last spring. It could possibly be because he began throwing earlier in the calendar than usual so he could react to any elbow soreness or stiffness.

Spring training is so full of new beginnings that it’s almost cliche to say. But so be it for Verlander, who is adapting to a new normal.

“It’s funny, you do this for — I guess it’s my 18th year. So you do it for that long and still every year, it’s like, but what am I supposed to be doing again?’” Verlander said. You find yourself a little lost, but yeah, having a normal timeline, it’s nice.”