NORFOLK — Hard ground balls mean different, though equally successful, things to the Brothers Verlander. For older brother Justin, the Major League mega-star pitcher with the Detroit Tigers, they're often a way to get out of an inning.
For younger brother Ben, they're his aim every time he steps into the batter's box, and the next step in realizing his ultimate goal.
Ben Verlander's approach, combined with lessons and advice from brother Justin's compadres, have resulted in a statistical jump and made the Old Dominion junior one of the Colonial Athletic Association's most effective hitters.
"I've always expected a lot of myself," Verlander said this week, when asked if he was surprised at his productivity. "Ever since I was really young and first started playing, I worked at trying to be a really good player. My parents took me to camps and instructors to become a better player. I've put in so many hours in the game through the years, I expect a lot of myself."
High expectations aside, Verlander's college career arc didn't suggest stardom. His first two years at ODU, he toggled between pitching and hitting, and excelled at neither.
"I was an average college baseball player," Verlander said. "From day one, I've never wanted to be an average player. Every day, I'm coming to the ballpark working on something."
In an exit meeting with Monarchs' coach Chris Finwood after last season, he suggested that Verlander concentrate on one area. Finwood thought that Verlander should focus on hitting and becoming a better field position player, but kept his opinion to himself.
"I told him, this has to be something you're comfortable with," Finwood recalled, then joked, "I didn't want to be the guy who tells Justin Verlander's younger brother that he shouldn't pitch."
Justin Verlander remains an immense figure at ODU, especially for a younger brother who also pitched. Justin was an All-American strikeout machine whose name is all over the Monarchs' record book before he went on to win an MVP and Cy Young Award with the Tigers.
"The positives strongly outweigh the negatives," Ben said of being Justin's little brother. "He's been my idol, watching him play baseball growing up. It's amazing to have a brother like that and to personally know a lot of professional ballplayers. He's always supported me. Whenever I have a question about something, I can call him up and he can ask his teammates and coaches and give me their input. Not many college players have that luxury.
"If there were any negatives, it was when I was pitching. He pitched here and the so-called 'shadow' that he cast probably added some pressure because some people expected me to be the same kind of pitcher he was. That's not very realistic."
Ben Verlander's decision to step away from the pitcher's mound paid off. He is hitting a team-best .375, seventh in the CAA, with a league-leading 10 home runs. He leads the Monarchs in hits (45), runs batted in (29), on-base percentage (.433) and slugging percentage (.733). He's a three-time conference Player of the Week.
"I certainly saw potential in him as a hitter," Finwood said, "but I'd be lying if I said I thought he'd have the season he's had so far."
Verlander has been so effective that Finwood recently made him one of the taller leadoff hitters (6-foot-4) in college baseball.
"He's been able to focus on hitting for the first time in his career," Finwood said. "He's also an extremely hard worker. He's a guy who's out early and stays late every day. He's a very intelligent baseball player. He sees the game better than a lot of guys his age, which probably comes from the fact that he's grown up around it and has had a guy like Justin to talk to."
Ben Verlander's transformation began last summer, when he played in the Valley League after ODU's season concluded. He didn't pitch and concentrated on hitting and playing the field. He started slowly, he said, but warmed up and hit well over .300 in the second half of the season.
After the summer season, he went to Detroit, where he worked out and talked baseball with brother Justin and his teammates and coaches. They worked on hitting one day at the ballpark, when Tigers' batting coach Lloyd McClendon suggested that Ben try a different routine.
Rather than keeping his feet stationary and simply shifting his weight from back to front on his swing, McClendon said to try a "toe tap" — lift his left foot and bring it back several inches, then step into the pitch when he swings, creating more forward momentum.
Tigers' slugger Prince Fielder and outfielder Austin Jackson had success with that method last season. Fielder could hit home runs with a shovel, but last season Jackson increased his batting average 50 points, his on-base percentage 60 points and his slugging percentage more than 100 points from 2011.
Verlander brought the new stance to ODU last fall. He was uncomfortable at first, but by the end of fall practice, he was swinging exceptionally and eager for the season to begin.