PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Justin Verlander did something remarkable on Friday. He also pitched three perfect innings, notched three strikeouts, allowed only one hard-hit ball and dominated the Mets.
Nothing was remarkable about any of that, considering the Tigers' Verlander arguably is baseball's best pitcher. The amazing part was that he took a 2½-hour ride to do it, and another 2½-hour ride back.
That sort of thing almost never happens in spring training. Accomplished major- leaguers hit the road about as much as the Mets hit Verlander on Friday. So it was an upset that he made his way from Lakeland, snaking through Lake Wales and Yeehaw Junction.
"This is my day," Verlander said with a grin, referring to his turn in the rotation. "And I don't think there are any minor-league games going on yet, so that's not an option."
Road trips are a sensitive subject during spring training every year, especially in Florida, where the teams are scattered. Clubs want to respect veteran players and keep them off buses. At the same time, Major League Baseball has directives to try to ensure that paying customers and TV audiences see some semblance of a big-league squad from the visiting team.
"The rule is you have to have either four starters or guys who are platoon players in your games," said Mets manager Terry Collins, who coached for Tigers manager Jim Leyland in Pittsburgh. "I grew up learning how to manage in the big leagues from that man across the field, who takes great pride in the game and made sure he did the best he could to bring some of his guys."
Actually, the two managers discussed the travel issue before the game. They agreed that it is especially vexing this year, with a lengthened schedule because of the World Baseball Classic.
"You've got to remember there are always exceptions," said Leyland, whose lineup Friday included Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. "Suppose we had a split squad today and we had a young [pitcher] and Justin. We would have left Justin home. You throw the veterans a bone when you can."
When you can't, though, the big guys roll down Route 60. "That's what we get paid for. That's what we do for a living. I've got to get my guys ready," Leyland said. "If you can ever adjust it, sure, you take care of your guys. That's common sense. Everybody does that"
Verlander didn't mind. It helped that he was allowed to take a car service. "I talked to Leyland about it earlier and he said the bus seats tend to get a little uncomfortable. If you're on there for an hour and a half or so, you don't want to be tight and come out here and pitch," he said. "I just watched movies. I watched 'Game of Thrones' on HBO, so it went by fast."
Don't expect that trend to catch on, though. It is a running joke at Yankees camp that Mariano Rivera does not need a gray road uniform in spring training because he hasn't pitched away from Tampa in years.
"Mariano has earned that," said Marlon Byrd, a veteran who is trying to make the Mets' roster and thus is ready to go anywhere anytime. Mets catcher John Buck said it was a rite of passage when he was one of the senior players on the Royals and caught mostly home games.
Fact is, road teams usually show up for exhibition games with largely anonymous lineups.
Said Collins, "I'm sure Sandy has gotten phone calls about, 'Hey where are your starters at?' Little do they know, they're playing."