DETROIT -- Justin Verlander was among the most vocal pitchers during Spring Training in his praise of young catcher Alex Avila, who faced the challenge of taking over regular catching duties with Victor Martinez over his shoulder.
Three months later, Avila and Verlander look more and more like an All-Star battery and a tandem in sync, as Verlander continues one of the best seasons by an American League pitcher this year.
Avila has caught Verlander for all but one of his 15 starts this year. Opponents are batting just .176 off Verlander in those outings, and just .209 on balls put in play, with 99 strikeouts out of 399 plate appearances.
Manager Jim Leyland doesn't believe in personal catchers, but there's little chance he's going to split them up. With right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez set to start opposite Verlander on Sunday at Colorado, they'll almost certainly be paired up again.
As Verlander talked with reporters Wednesday about his no-hit bid the night before, he was effusive in his praise of Avila.
"It's pretty tough to be on the exact same page as a catcher, but as far as a rapport, I feel really comfortable with him back there," Verlander said. "I think the way you earn respect is with hard work. The strides that he's made as a catcher, a very young catcher -- not just young in age, but young in experience behind the plate -- I think shows how hard he works for us to be a good catcher."
It's a different twist for Verlander, who spent most of his Major League career until now working with veteran catchers. He came up while Ivan Rodriguez was an All-Star backstop and a commanding presence behind the plate. When Gerald Laird came over in 2009, he and Verlander developed a rapport shaped by equally strong wills.
With Avila, Verlander said, the pitchers try to let him know about points he can improve. When they do, he does it. He used Avila's progress blocking balls in the dirt as an example.
"Last year and I think early this year, he was having trouble, and he knew that," Verlander said. "I talked to him a little bit, and he said he was working on it, and that's all you need to say. He's been tremendous. And you can tell he works his tail off. And the results, almost immediately after he started working on it, it was a night-and-day difference."
As far as being together on pitch calling, he said, Avila does the best with a challenging job.
"I always shake everybody off," Verlander said. "Alex makes fun of me. There were a couple times last night he threw down a sign, I shook him off and just kept shaking back to the same sign."
That said, Verlander added, they've found themselves making the same observations about hitters.
"Yesterday we were pretty much on the same page," Verlander said. "There was a batter that our game plan was not to throw changeups to him. I wasn't going to throw him changeups. But right out of the gate, my changeup was really good, and in the same conversation after the game, he said, 'Hey, we weren't goiing to throw changeups to this guy, but your changeup was really good.'"
For Avila, the season has been quite an experience.
"The way he's been throwing this year is by far the best I've seen," Avila said. "One of the best performances I've seen out of a pitcher in a year, and I was just a little kid, is when Pedro Martinez won the Cy Young with Boston. That was unbelieveable. He had an unbelievable year. But as far as getting to catch [Verlander] every five days, it's been a piece of cake."
Slumping Raburn might lose more playing time
DETROIT -- When Tigers manager Jim Leyland moved Ryan Raburn to second base on close to a full-time basis three weeks ago, he said the season started over for him. Now, after hints that Raburn might be emerging from his six-week slump have faded, Leyland is still trying to get the right-handed power bat going, and even his patience might be waning on that.
Raburn's new season might be nearing a defining point soon.
"I think you just ride it out until you make some kind of decision -- play him more, play him less, whatever," Leyland said Wednesday. "I mean, we hit extra, we do all the things that everybody else does, so there's no secret formula for it. Just keep working at it and hope he catches fire. If he doesn't, you play somebody else."
That last part has already been starting to take place. A day after Ramon Santiago spelled Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, Santiago shifted over to second base for his fourth start there in Detroit's last seven games.
Raburn started five straight games at second during the last road trip to Chicago and Texas. Since then, he has started four out of Detroit's last eight games.
Leyland clearly hopes to still get Raburn going at the plate. But his comments about it Wednesday were a little more guarded than they were last week.
"What I've seen up to now, I've seen some [signs] where you get pretty optimistic, and then you have a setback," Leyland said. "It's like the old two steps forward, one back once in a while, it seems like. But he hasn't been taking that many steps forward, quite truthfully. Hopefully, he will."
Tigers haven't decided on plan for Inge's return
DETROIT -- Brandon Inge worked out again with the Tigers during batting practice on Wednesday, but so far, the team hasn't set a plan on getting him back into action.
A big question in that could come down to whether or not Inge goes on a Minor League rehab assignment.
"I'm waiting to hear some further stuff," manager Jim Leyland said, "and then we're going to have to sit down and talk. I don't know what the situation will be. The player has the option not to go [for rehab]. We'll have to wait and see what his feelings are on that."
Inge indicated Tuesday that he felt like he might be ready to return as soon as he's eligible to come off the disabled list Friday.
"Once I'm eligible to come off, I want to be back right away," Inge said Tuesday.
Because he has just missed two weeks, there could be less of an issue of getting his timing back at third base or at the plate. The bigger question could be getting back physically into game shape after a virus that sapped his energy.
Tigers bullpen bursting with left-handers
DETROIT -- The Tigers have four left-handers in their bullpen with David Purcey, Daniel Schlereth, Charlie Furbush and Adam Wilk. They have another lefty reliever, Brad Thomas, on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo, having pitched a perfect inning with a strikeout for the Mud Hens Tuesday night. ESPN.com's Jayson Stark cited rival scouts last week saying Detroit could be in the market for a lefty, though that might have come before the Purcey trade.
At some point, how many lefties do they need?
"There's too many of them," Leyland said. "You don't need four, to be honest with you. But, it's the old saying, 'If they're the best guys you've got, then you take them.' Right now, we felt that was the best we had. If [Ryan] Perry's right, which he's trying to get right, then Perry would be here and one of those lefties wouldn't be here."
Perry continues to pitch well at Triple-A Toledo, but Leyland reiterated they're in no hurry to bring him back. Once he gets his command issues corrected, then he'll return.
It's a tricky situation, because it leaves Al Alburquerque as the lone right-hander available before the eighth inning. And the Tigers are wary of using him too much and wearing out his arm, which has the extra strain of throwing so many sliders since it's his out pitch.