Verlander having a strong spring

VIERA, Fla. -- The last time someone other than Justin Verlander started on Opening Day for Detroit, Gary Sheffield was the Tigers' designated hitter, Sean "The Mayor" Casey was the first baseman and Chad Durbin was a member of the starting rotation. The year was 2007, and Kenny Rogers did the honors.

Verlander has started the Tigers' six season openers since then. If there were any doubt, he would like to make it seven.

Any questions about Verlander's readiness to begin the season on time after offseason core muscle surgery have quickly faded. He was on top of his game Sunday against Washington, throwing five one-hit, shutout innings in Detroit's 2-1 victory over the Nationals at Space Coast Stadium.

Verlander has now pitched 8 2/3 two-hit, shutout innings in the Grapefruit League. How sharp was he against the Nats? With 49 pitches in five innings, he was 16 short of his pregame target of 65. So he walked out to the bullpen after his outing and threw 16 pitches to reach his allotment for the day.

Verlander good-naturedly kidded pitching coach Jeff Jones about his postgame assignment.

"I told Jeff, 'This is messed up. I get punished for throwing too well,'" Verlander said.

Even more encouraging, Verlander dominated a Washington lineup that featured Denard Span, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche in the first six spots. He was particularly effective with his off-speed stuff, striking out Werth and Harper in consecutive at-bats with his changeup.

Detroit manager Brad Ausmus has yet to name his Opening Day starter, but he has three worthy candidates. Anibal Sanchez led the American League with a 2.57 ERA last season, and Max Scherzer went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and won the American League Cy Young Award.

Verlander's 2013 numbers (13-12, 3.46 with a 1.31 WHIP) weren't quite up to his career standards. But he still struck out 217 batters in 218 1/3 innings and was lights-out in the postseason, allowing one earned run in 23 innings against Oakland and Boston in the playoffs.

"I'm not going to campaign," Verlander said. "That's Brad's decision. Do I want to start Opening Day? Absolutely. I think if you ask any of our five starters if they wanted to start Opening Day, the answer would be yes. But we're in a pretty unique and envious position. I think any manager would like to make the tough decision that we have here."