DETROIT -- The last time Justin Verlander lost three consecutive starts, he ended up leading the American League in losses. That was 2008, when he was still learning to harness his talent as a pitcher. That won't happen this year.
That was the same season the Tigers fell too far back in the AL Central race by late summer to contend at the end, finishing with a disappointing campaign. They're not anywhere near that point yet, even after dropping their seventh series out of nine with Sunday's 5-1 loss to the Yankees. Still, right now, the Tigers are surviving more than they are contending.
Detroit's roster has been sapped by injuries to the point that it had to make a move to get a second player on the bench on Sunday, with Matt Young replacing injured outfielder Andy Dirks. The Tigers' starting catcher, second baseman and center fielder on Sunday all have more plate appearances at Triple-A Toledo than at Detroit so far this year, and the catcher and center fielder are injury replacements.
Verlander is the least of manager Jim Leyland's worries, but he's also the pitcher whose days on the mound give the Tigers the best chance to win. The offense behind Verlander against Yankees starter Phil Hughes, on the other hand, wasn't what Leyland was hoping for.
"Hughes was good, but we knew that ahead of time," Leyland said. "I'm disappointed in the offense today, [and] mostly left-handed hitters. He's been doing the same thing. Left-handed hitters haven't been hitting him."
The last time Hughes pitched a regular-season game at Comerica Park, in 2010, he tossed seven scoreless innings and struck out eight in a winning effort. The year before that, he tossed six scoreless innings on two hits with six strikeouts and won. By contrast, the Tigers roughed him up last year at Yankee Stadium.
Prince Fielder's tape-measure home run on Sunday was the first run Hughes had allowed here in 18 innings since 2007. It was also the only run he allowed in Sunday's complete-game four-hitter.
Brennan Boesch started against Hughes in that 2010 game. He said Hughes was the best he has seen him on Sunday.
"He was throwing inside early in the game, and then later he was throwing everything away," Boesch said. "It was a pretty good game plan for him, and he was ahead of us on adjustments."
Leyland wasn't frustrated about it, he said, but he was disappointed. If there was an emotion in the home clubhouse, it was more frustration.
Verlander seemed foremost among the frustrated, mainly about his own outing.
"It's not always going to be great," Verlander said, "but I've just got to do a better job. Obviously, you know it's going to happen every now and again, but I still don't ever expect it. I'm never happy about it."
Verlander lost a pitchers' duel in Cleveland a week and a half ago and took a beating at Fenway Park on Tuesday. The Yankees continued their recent success off him with a two-run first inning and two big hits after that.
Derek Jeter's leadoff shot was the 27th leadoff homer of his career and his third this season, and Verlander seemingly struggled to recover. He gave up back-to-back walks to Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez, then crossed up catcher Omir Santos on a passed ball that moved Granderson into position to score on a Robinson Cano sacrifice fly.
Verlander used up 26 pitches in the opening inning. Leyland said that a slightly delayed start due to Magglio Ordonez's retirement ceremony might have been a factor. The fact that Santos had never caught Verlander in a game, too, might have played a role, the manager added.
"I'm not worried about him at all," Leyland said. "He's fine. He's absolutely fine. You could see he was definitely out of sync. You can always see it with him."
Verlander didn't cite it.
"The pitches that I practice in the bullpen and the pitches that I always practice weren't, I guess, quite there," Verlander said. "I had to resort to some different things, trying to pitch differently than I normally do, trying to throw the ball over a lot of the plate. And that's a recipe for disaster."
Verlander used a double play to escape damage in the second, but he had to challenge Rodriguez after falling behind, 3-1, in the third. Rodriguez sent the 96-mph fastball off the brick wall behind left-field, an estimated 447-foot drive, for a solo homer.
Granderson's double in the fifth set up one final blow, this one a Cano drive deep to right-center that cleared Quintin Berry after the center fielder seemingly strayed too far in on his route. Cano rolled into third with a triple before Danny Worth's throw to third short-hopped Miguel Cabrera and eluded Verlander, who was late to back up Cabrera behind third base. Once the ball rolled into the home dugout, Cano trotted home.
Verlander lasted 6 1/3 innings, stretching his streak of consecutive starts with at least six innings to 54. He gave up five runs in back-to-back outings, however, for the first time since September 2009.
That coincided with the Tigers' late-season struggles that cost them a division title and a postseason berth. They're not far enough into the season to worry about that right now. It's the overall play that worries the club, as it tries to contend in the first place.
For now, the Tigers are surviving.
"Not good at all," Verlander said of the way they've played so far.