Tigers need Verlander of old back before postseason
Righty hasn't been his usual dominant self on the mound most of this year
DETROIT -- Any scenario that includes an American League pennant and a World Series championship for the 2013 Detroit Tigers also features Justin Verlander pitching like, well, Justin Verlander.
The Tigers are not a far-fetched choice to reach those heights, given their impressive rotation and their imposing lineup. But Verlander, from whom greatness is expected, is producing something that overall is closer to good than it is to terrific.
And Tuesday night at Comerica Park against the Oakland Athletics, Verlander was closer to not good enough than he was to good. A 44-pitch first inning set a less-than-dominant tone for the evening. Two of the five runs Verlander allowed were unearned, but he was gone after five innings. The Tigers eventually lost, 6-3, with the game being called in the sixth inning due to persistent rain.
"He didn't have a good game," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That many pitches that early spells out lack of command. It was basically lack of command, and they whacked a couple of mistakes.
"He didn't pitch well. His command was not good. You see some signs; some good curveballs, some good pitches, but not with any type of consistency. The command was very inconsistent. It seemed to me that he was all over the place."
"Obviously, I wasn't very good," Verlander said. "I thought I had good stuff early on, just the control wasn't very good."
Verlander said he was "drenched" in the fifth inning. But to his credit, he did not use the rain as any sort of excuse.
Verlander may have set the bar impossibly high for himself with a 2011 AL Cy Young Award- and MVP Award-winning season in which he demonstrated that he was the best starting pitcher in baseball.
His current record (12-10, 3.73 ERA) would be happily taken by many other starters and their agents. But this is Verlander, not that long ago the ace of all aces.
"You read a lot about the so-called 'struggles' he's having, then you look at his numbers and it doesn't look like he's struggling," A's manager Bob Melvin said before Tuesday night's game. "They might not be Verlander-esque, but he always gets everybody's attention. You're never going to have a perfect situation every year. And I'm sure [the Tigers] are pretty encouraged that he's going to turn it on at the right time. Hopefully, that's after we leave."
The A's got what they wished for in that regard. What mystifies about Verlander's performance this year is that the usual signs of a decline in pitching performance are not present. Verlander's stuff has not dissipated. His velocity has not precipitously dropped. That is part of the riddle surrounding his less-than-great performance over most of this season.
His fastball command has not been as precise as it once was. His secondary pitches have not been as crisp as they have been. But we are not talking about a complete pitching collapse. Leyland believes that Verlander must return to a basic approach, that of simply taking his impressive stuff to the mound and competing.
"Just go out there and be yourself," Leyland said. "You're a stuff guy, take your stuff out there and compete like you have. That's made you the best pitcher in baseball for the last several years. Just keep it simple. I think sometimes people -- and I'm not singling out the Verlander situation, I'm just using this as a general philosophy -- people create a problem when there's not a problem. That's just my opinion. "
This season, Max Scherzer has in effect become the star of the Detroit rotation. And with his 19-1 record, why not?
This has set off a lot of talk in Motown about who should be the lead starter for the Tigers if they reach the postseason. Leyland, correctly, was having none of this when asked about it Tuesday.
"I can assure you one thing," the manager said. "If we were fortunate enough to get to the postseason, I'll have four good pitchers starting. In what order, I don't necessarily know. "
Leyland said he was concerned about Verlander's performance, but maintained his belief in Verlander's ability, saying: "In my opinion, he's a great pitcher with great stuff. "
Verlander maintained that would get back to his previous, outstanding level.
"I've been through this before [in 2008]," he said. "I'm a better pitcher now.
"I know it's going to click. Like I said back in '08, my confidence in myself never wavered, and it's not now. I think that's a huge part of being able to work through something like this, is to maintain your confidence in your ability and yourself and find the right way to do things."
So, for Verlander getting back to his dominant self on the mound is a question of when, not if. The Tigers have to hope that when in this case is before the 2013 postseason.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.