Verlander doesn't have his best stuff
Right-hander allows seven runs over five-plus innings
CLEVELAND -- The Detroit Pistons will come to town this weekend hoping to avoid elimination against the Cleveland Cavaliers and keep alive their hopes for the NBA Finals. Across the street at Jacobs Field, there will be no talk of elimination, but maybe frustration.
Four months remain before baseball's postseason, giving the Tigers plenty of time to heal some players and prepare others for the stretch run. For now, though, they'll be glad to put May behind them after Thursday's 11-5 loss to the Indians.
Detroit had its best batting average for a month since 1956, topped 40 home runs in a month for the first time since 2000 and doubled more times in a month than any Tigers team since 1987. But as the month closed out, a rough stretch of starting pitching and a stretch of long work for the bullpen left the Tigers hitting to get through games.
They hit C.C. Sabathia on Thursday, but they couldn't do it enough to avoid Justin Verlander's first loss in a month and the Tigers' sixth loss in their last seven games.
"We're just in a little stretch where we're not playing our best baseball. And that happens," said Verlander, who gave up seven runs in eight hits, walked three and hit three batters in five-plus innings. "We have to grind through this and turn things around here. I would've liked to have been that guy to step up tonight and turn things around for us and get us going in the right direction, but I couldn't do it."
For most of the night, it was a grind for Verlander, who had won four consecutive starts before running into the Indians last Saturday at Comerica Park. He held Cleveland to two runs over six innings that afternoon before the Indians rallied for four runs once he left. This time, he regained the lead after surrendering a two-run first inning, only for Cleveland to take out more damage on him later.
Battling his control, Verlander went to his fastball for much of the night to get back into counts or forge ahead in them, and the Indians seemed to answer. Nine times, Verlander fell behind into 2-0 counts, including three of the four consecutive hits in the four-run fifth inning that put the Indians ahead for good.
The crushing blows came off two Verlander fastballs. After Grady Sizemore and Casey Blake led off the decisive inning with back-to-back singles and advanced on a wild pitch, Travis Hafner followed up his two-run homer in the first by centering a fastball at 98 mph fastball to pound it through the middle for a two-run single. Four pitches later, Martinez drove a 97 mph fastball to right-center for his ninth homer of the season.
Hafner and Martinez were 4-for-26 combined for their careers off Verlander, and they went 4-for-23 with two homers and six RBIs against the Tigers last weekend. On Thursday, they drove in Cleveland's first seven runs.
While Verlander (5-2) battled control, his strikes ended up catching too much of the plate. His seven runs allowed were the second-most of his career, trailing the eight runs he allowed at Jacobs Field last Aug. 26.
"It's a little unfair," manager Jim Leyland said, "because he's so young, so talented. And I think sometimes you forget that he's really young yet."
It was tough for the 24-year-old Verlander to think that way.
"I'm never going to chalk it up as one of those nights," he said, "no matter whether I've got my good stuff or I'm not throwing well. I still expect to go out there and give us a chance to win, and tonight I don't feel like I did that."
It was a strange outing, Leyland pointed out, and yet it had a common theme with others from Tigers starters over the past couple weeks -- a high pitch count resulting in an early exit. Verlander topped the 100-pitch mark with his first batter in the sixth en route to Sizemore's leadoff walk, and he was pulled at 107 pitches, the last of which hit Casey Blake to put him on base. A Hafner walk against Tim Byrdak set up a Martinez sacrifice fly and a three-run margin.
"They've just got to get through a few more innings with less pitches," Leyland said of his starters. "I've already told the pitchers here. I'm not going to be the guy that gets somebody hurt. If they want to pitch longer, more innings, then they have to get through them with fewer pitches."
Byrdak settled down to keep it there for two innings, allowing the Tigers to get the potential tying run to the plate after Marcus Thames' second RBI single made it a two-run game in the eighth and knocked out Sabathia (8-1). But after Rafael Betancourt retired Craig Monroe and Omar Infante, the Indians tacked on four runs off Jose Mesa.
Verlander's control problems weren't the only oddity. Gary Sheffield, who doubled in a run in Detroit's go-ahead three-run third, had his bat broken on a fifth-inning groundout after a called strike on the inside corner. He slammed the handle of his bat to the ground behind him coming out of the batter's box and was ejected by home-plate umpire Greg Gibson. That infuriated Sheffield, who was amazingly restrained by Leyland before Ivan Rodriguez came out of the dugout to help.
Neither Sheffield nor Leyland commented on the ejection, though Leyland commented on the restraining.
"I did the best I could," Leyland said. "When I had to hold on tight, I think it upset him. I think he was about to throw me around. I can't hold him. I'm too old for that. He's too strong."
It was an unusual sight that went with an unusual game that goes along with this stretch, where things don't seem to fit for a Tigers team that's used to winning on pitching.
"We're just not in any kind of a flow right now," Leyland said. "If it's not one thing, it's something else. We're just in a real bad flow right now with the pitching and the bullpen. The offense goes out and gets three last night, then we get shut down. We come back tonight, take a 4-2 lead, and then we're behind again."
Leyland said it's up to him and the coaching staff to "try to steady the ship," but he pointed out his team isn't doing some of the things that helped win games earlier this season. They won't be the Detroit team in a must-win situation this weekend, but after four losses in four tries against the Indians this year, a win would be a start.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.