Outlook: Smyly set to return to starting rotation

LAKELAND, Fla. -- How much will Tigers manager Brad Ausmus consider his starters' pitch counts before he heads out to the mound and signals to the bullpen? To answer that question with another question: Who's on the mound that day?

Justin Verlander threw more than 120 pitches four times last season, nine times in 2012 and 10 times in '11. Max Scherzer topped 115 pitches seven times last year, and Anibal Sanchez eclipsed that mark four times, including a 130-pitch, one-hit shutout on May 24. Those three have proven their durability, and Verlander in particular is known for his ability to get stronger as the game progresses.

So what does the Tigers' new manager think about pitch counts?

"It'll factor," Ausmus said. "Somewhere along the line, people got married to that 100-pitch count, to the point where even Minor League guys, when they were coming out, they were staring at the pitch count on the scoreboard saying, 'All right, my job is done.' I don't think you have that as much here."

Ausmus admitted he could take on a different approach, perhaps a more cautious one, with lefty Drew Smyly, as he's entering the rotation after spending all of last season in the bullpen. But don't expect Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez to start eyeing the scoreboard when they've thrown their 100th pitch.

"I don't think guys like Verlander, Scherzer or Sanchez are concerned about the 100-pitch count," Ausmus said. "I don't know that I will with those guys."

Verlander throws; Tigers comfortable with progress

Verlander focused on getting back to pitching shape

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones expected Justin Verlander would want extra pitches when he threw his bullpen session Saturday. Really, Jones seemed surprised that Verlander threw only one pitch more than his limit.

Jones knows Verlander as well as anybody in the organization, having worked with him since 2007. And he insists he isn't worried about Verlander pushing himself too hard, too fast in his recovery from core muscle surgery.

"He always pushes himself really hard, but I think he understands what he needs to get ready," Jones said Sunday. "Honestly, when we found out what happened [with the injury in December], we talked on the phone, and I wasn't too concerned with him pushing himself."

It might have been a concern a few years ago. It definitely would have been a concern in Verlander's younger days when he was still trying to prove himself. But as Jones put it, Verlander's no longer trying to make the team.

Jones said they'll take a wait-and-see approach on Verlander's side sessions for the next week to 10 days, holding off on a schedule until he reports no discomfort. Under normal circumstances, Verlander would be throwing every other day for the next couple of turns, then every third day leading into the start of the Spring Training schedule.

As long as Verlander can make five starts this spring, they'll feel comfortable with his readiness going into the season.

Verlander was cleared to take part in fielding drills Sunday for the first time this spring. That included the oft-mentioned ragball drill, taking hard-hit ground balls hit back at him from Omar Vizquel.

"It was good to be able to do that," Verlander said.

Pitchers welcome challenge of Ausmus' ragball drill

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- The drill sounds like target practice: A coach hitting choppers and grounders right at a pitcher standing maybe 30 feet away. To Tigers pitchers, however, it sounds like fun.

That's the essence of the ragball drill that new manager Brad Ausmus has brought with him to Spring Training, having picked it up with the Padres. In essence, it's an extreme version of pitchers fielding practice, though the balls are softer than standard baseballs so they don't leave a bruise.

So far, it has been a welcome departure from the normal Spring Training routine.

"I'm very happy we're doing this," Max Scherzer said. "We don't get much of a reaction drill."

It's quite rare, in fact, for pitchers to have their quick reactions tested from that angle. Hard-hit comebackers are something usually to avoid in games, let alone practices, for good reason, given the risk of injury. The softer baseballs take that part out, allowing pitchers the setting to get used to a ball coming back at them straight-on at a high rate of speed.

"It's basically just for the pitchers to react to balls being hit right back at them without the risk of being hit in the face with a baseball," Ausmus said after the first day. "And it can be tough. It's more of a reaction drill."

Said Scherzer: "It's coming at you so fast, you have to be 100 percent on your toes."

The drill has become a form of competition for pitchers, to the point that Ausmus is splitting them into teams to see who can fare better.

"There is a prize at the end," Ausmus said.

Ausmus begins spring days with light-hearted meetings

Ausmus on Tigers first workout

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brad Ausmus might be doing a few things a little differently if he were managing elsewhere. The Tigers manager said Sunday he probably would cover things in a different way with a younger roster, and he likely would approach the roster-trimming process with a different mentality.

One thing Ausmus said he wouldn't change, however, is the meeting he holds each morning with the Tigers.

He wouldn't go into the specifics of each meeting, before which players drag their chairs from in front of their lockers to one side of the clubhouse. Instead, he described it generally as "just a mixture of baseball discussion and some team fun." Ausmus said he didn't pick up the tradition from any of his previous managers, but he saw Bud Black do something similar in San Diego.

"It's really just a lot of times getting to know younger players. I don't know if I like the phrase, but in some sense, it's some team-building-type stuff," Ausmus said. "It's fun. We laugh at each other. We laugh at things that are happening in the world. Nothing earth-shattering. It's a way to get to know each other."

There is some baseball discussion, of course, but that aspect of the meetings would remain the same no matter the audience, Ausmus said. The Tigers' roster is full of proven, veteran players with postseason experience, but Ausmus said he remembered learning new things about the game at that stage of his career.

"I make it a habit of trying not to assume that somebody knows something, even if I sound like a moron telling them. If you assume they know it and they don't, then I think it's my mistake," Ausmus said. "But if I tell them and they think I'm an idiot for telling them because it sounds elementary, I'd rather that they think I'm an idiot and have them covered."

Position players arrive early before Tuesday's workout

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Detroit's position players aren't scheduled to report until Monday, and their first full-squad workout isn't until Tuesday. But the Tigers clubhouse was already full of hitters Sunday.

Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Rajai Davis and Steve Lombardozzi were among the crowd of position players that rolled into Joker Marchant Stadium on Sunday, a growing group that "really impressed" manager Brad Ausmus.

They'll get into the batter's box quickly, too, as Ausmus said he plans to begin live batting practice Tuesday during the first full workout.

At this early stage of Spring Training, the drill is mostly about helping pitchers get used to seeing a hitter at the plate. Some hitters will swing, while most will just track pitches into the catcher's mitt.

"It's something that, really, 95 percent of hitters don't enjoy," Ausmus said. "You don't enjoy getting in there against your own pitchers, especially if it's [Bruce] Rondon or somebody like that throwing 95 or 100 [mph.] ... As a position player, you don't really love those days."

To illustrate that point, Ausmus recalled a time during Rockies camp that he took a 95-mph fastball right to the ribs. No pitcher wants to be the guy who accidentally beans Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez, either.

"I don't think [pitchers] love it," Ausmus said. "I think it's one of those necessary evils."