DETROIT -- Lost between the dissection of Justin Verlander's fastballs and the efficiency of Jose Valverde's latest splitters, Luke Putkonen provided one of the biggest innings of Wednesday's win in Cleveland. In the process, he demonstrated a growing confidence that he belongs in the big leagues.
It was something pitching coach Jeff Jones was glad to see.
"It looks to me right now like he's starting to believe that he's a big league pitcher," Jones said Thursday. "He's pitching like he wants to stay. Jim [Leyland] thinks he's a big league pitcher, and so do I."
Putkonen has been in the big leagues a few times already, only to return to Triple-A Toledo eventually each time. While Tigers officials raved about the stuff, the execution was inconsistent.
In big outings, Putkonen has been steadier this year. He only had one inning Wednesday, but he made it look easy, spotting 96-mph fastballs while dropping a handful of curveballs, four of them for strikes.
"A big key for him, just like anybody else, is to be able to get your breaking ball over, and he's been doing that this year," Jones said. "It makes a big difference."
Verlander shows improved fastball command
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander's return to form is more like a process than a switch, his pitching coach cautioned on Thursday.
"It doesn't always happen overnight," Jeff Jones said the day after Verlander's latest outing.
Wednesday's outing in Cleveland, despite all the damage, was a part of the process for the coach. After back-to-back games in which Verlander struggled with fastball command, Jones said he was around the plate with fastballs for most of the night. The problem, Jones suggested, was the reverse of his previous outings.
"I think early, he wasn't getting his offspeed stuff over, so they were kind of sitting on the fastball," Jones said. "And then he started getting his curveball over in the third and fourth, which I thought made a big difference.
"After that, it's as good of a curveball as I've seen him have all year."
The data coming out of Wednesday's outing backed up the thought on fastball command. After throwing barely half of his 62 fastballs for strikes two starts ago against Cleveland, then throwing about 60 percent of his fastballs for strikes -- many of which Rangers batters hit -- in his last start, Verlander was around the strike zone consistently with his heater Wednesday night, hitting it with better than seven out of every 10.
It wasn't as much heat as last Thursday in Texas, dropping a tick to an average of just over 95 mph according to data from MLB.com's Gameday application. However, out of 35 strikes, 26 weren't put in play, according to brooksbaseball.net.
Just three of those were swings and misses, compared with a high total of foul balls. He still managed nine strikeouts over five innings. The last of those, a curveball for a called third strike on Ryan Raburn, was encouraging for Verlander, who used his fastball to set it up after waiting through a 62-minute rain delay.
"Those last couple batters, Raburn in particular, was probably the best I felt all night, being able to find my location on my fastball," Verlander said after the game. "That's a big positive for me moving forward."
It's not where he wants to be, but it's a building block for his next start on Memorial Day against the Pirates.
Jackson unlikely to come off DL when eligible
DETROIT -- Austin Jackson is back at Comerica Park with the Tigers beginning a homestand Thursday. It's looking less and less likely, though, that he'll be ready to return to action before the Tigers hit the road again next week.
What was originally hoped to be a minimal stint on the disabled list for Jackson and his pulled left hamstring now shows no signs of an impending end. Though manager Jim Leyland came away from a Thursday morning conversation with Jackson encouraged, Leyland said, "It didn't sound like he's home free just yet, so I can't give you any prediction."
Jackson is eligible to come off the disabled list on Monday.
"He really has not done any physical activities," Leyland said. "So he's obviously going to have to do some of that before he gets back in there. But I want it right. I don't want him to come back at 85 percent and do it again."
Jackson has been receiving treatment for the past couple days, Leyland said, something he wasn't able to do earlier.
Younger brother Ben visits with Verlander, Tigers
DETROIT -- The hitter in the Verlander family paid a visit to Comerica Park on Thursday. It wasn't a pre-Draft workout for Old Dominion slugger Ben Verlander, whose three-homer game this spring put his name in scouts' notebooks. Instead, it's a week to visit his big brother along with their parents while the Tigers are home.
It also was an opportunity for more hitting work with Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, who helped the younger Verlander on his swing last summer.
"Coach McClendon has really helped me with my swing a lot," Verlander said. "I came up here last summer and took it into this season. He helped me a whole lot. Just coming back and being able to work with him in the cages and getting out on the field with him is great."
Being able to rub it in to his brother might be even better. He just finished his junior season this week with a .367 average, 11 home runs and 44 RBIs, earning him all-conference honors. Three of those homers came against Northeastern on March 9, which had Justin Verlander gushing.
"I actually haven't given him any grief about it," Ben Verlander said. "He's actually been the one. I read in an article that he admitted I was the better hitter. He's never admitted I was the better anything, so to see that was pretty crazy."
To see people suggesting that the younger Verlander could get a hit in the big leagues before his big brother is crazier.
"That's kind of the family joke now," he said with a laugh. "I still like to give him a hard time about it."
Clubhouse manager Schmakel draws Leyland's praise
DETROIT -- Jim Schmakel has spent more than three decades as the Tigers' clubhouse manager and is a legend in the organization, but rarely gets much public praise. His work to help the Tigers get out of Cleveland in a hurry after Wednesday's game moved manager Jim Leyland to point him out.
While the Tigers scrambled to get ready for the quick flight back home after finishing off Wednesday's win after midnight, Schmakel and assistants loaded up the team's equipment truck and hit the road. Instead of taking the time to put the equipment on the team plane, Schmakel drove it back to Comerica Park, arriving just after 4 a.m. ET.
It was no big deal for Schmakel, who has done it several times before and was planning on doing it anyway before the rain delay. He'll regularly do the same when the team is in Chicago, and he says he once drove the six-hour trek back from Milwaukee on a dare.
The drive back from Cleveland, Schmakel said, didn't make much difference in his schedule.
"In my life, it cost me an hour," he said. "It was well worth it."
• Octavio Dotel threw a bullpen session on Thursday at the Tigers' Spring Training complex in Lakeland, Fla. It's his first mound work since the setback that shut Dotel down for more than a week in his rehab from right elbow inflammation.
• Torii Hunter had a road-trip nightmare in Cleveland, losing his wedding ring after removing it to ease the pressure on a blister. "She said, 'I love you no matter what,'" Hunter recalled. "She said, 'It's just a ring, get another one.' I said, 'But I want that one.' You know, I played it up a little bit. But I was scared to make that phone call."