Bats give ace little room for error
Verlander pitches well but suffers fourth straight loss
KANSAS CITY -- If the old Sparky Anderson line of thought holds that a team can't be fairly judged until the 40-game mark, then now is the time for the Tigers to worry.
They could still have a chance to be a good team, and manager Jim Leyland believes they can be, but their 40th game -- a 2-0 loss to the Royals Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium -- showed many of the same struggles from most of the first 39 contests.
"For most of the year, we've had combinations where you lose," Leyland said. "It's just all the combinations that lead to losing."
Justin Verlander summed it up in two words: "Murphy's Law."
Whatever can go wrong, does. Or in this case, enough goes wrong to lose.
"That's the only explanation," Verlander said.
They've pitched inconsistently, but that wasn't the problem Wednesday. Good outings or bad ones, they've struggled to plate runs more often.
Once again, a relatively inexperienced pitcher quieted the star-studded Tigers offense. And again, it came with Verlander on the mound. This time, rookie Luke Hochevar and the Royals bullpen handed Detroit its sixth shutout of the season and Detroit's ace his seventh loss already this year.
The Tigers haven't scored since Matt Joyce's second-inning solo homer in Tuesday's series opener. That's a 16-inning scoreless streak, and it's the fourth time this season they've been blanked for 14 or more consecutive innings.
They're still in the top half of the American League in scoring, but they've been held to three runs or fewer in exactly half of their games. They're 0-20 in those games.
"We're just not making good things happen," Leyland said. "That's what you need to do up here. This is a game of adjustments. You can see what the Royals are doing. You have to adjust."
The Royals, Leyland explained, are pitching the Tigers backwards -- throwing breaking balls and offspeed pitches in early fastball counts, and vice versa. The Tigers, in turn, are chasing pitches out of the strike zone.
"They're doing a really good job of doing that," Placido Polanco said. "[Hochevar's] not the only one."
It's not just this series, either, Leyland said. The Royals have worked that approach to them all year, and they're 5-0 against the Tigers this season as a result.
"They look very impressive," Leyland said. "I think they have a very good game plan, and they're following it very well. And ultimately, the pitchers are executing. We really haven't adjusted."
The latest to execute was a pitcher the Tigers scouted leading into the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. Hochevar went later to the Dodgers but did not sign, leaving himself available to the Royals with the top overall pick in 2006. With an assortment of pitches and the aforementioned game plan Wednesday, he outdueled the second overall pick from the 2004 Draft.
Not even Verlander's traditional dominance of the Royals could save the Tigers this time around. Hochevar (3-2) allowed four singles and three walks over six innings, but Detroit went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position in that span, including a third-inning opportunity with two runners on following Kansas City's only runs of the game.
He never retired more than four batters in a row, but he also allowed only one two-out hit. Tigers hitters worked him to the extent of 96 pitches over his six innings, but they also struck out five times, including at least two swings and misses on high fastballs.
"He got a lot of outs on balls," Leyland said.
Though Verlander (1-7) again showed some hope that he could turn around his struggling start, he again had some pitches he could regret. It wasn't so much Joey Gathright's two-run single, a line drive to left off of a breaking ball and dropped around his knees. Nor was it the back-to-back singles leading off the inning. It was the two-out, four-pitch walk to Tony Pena that preceded Gathright's hit.
Pena entered the night with two walks in 107 plate appearances this season, tied for the fewest walks in the Majors among players with at least 100 plate appearances.
"That was one of those instances where I lost the zone a little bit," Verlander said. "I have to take my chances [and challenge him]."
Thanks to a lack of run support, that was more margin for error than Verlander could afford. The Tigers have been held to two runs or fewer in seven of Verlander's nine starts, a factor that weighed heavily as Verlander moved into a tie with Barry Zito for the Major League lead in losses.
From Verlander's standpoint, it goes back to Murphy's Law.
"Things have gone well for me the last couple years," Verlander said, "and it's coming back to bite me this year."
Indeed, as Leyland pointed out before the game, this is the first time in Verlander's career that he has struggled like this. He faded down the stretch in his first full big league season two years ago, but that was more a matter of fatigue. He came out of that a stronger pitcher with a better grasp of pitching without his top velocity, and Leyland believes he's close to getting through this. But for now, it's rough.
"He wasn't perfect by any means," Leyland said of Verlander's outing, "but he was certainly good enough. He gave us an opportunity."
The way the Tigers are struggling at the plate isn't helping. As many bad combinations as they've had, the offense is the closest to a common denominator.
After 40 games, even for those who don't believe in that benchmark, it's not a good situation.
"We just haven't been clicking on all cylinders at all," Leyland said. "It's very surprising to me."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.