Verlander, offense falter in finale
Tigers starter strikes out eight batters in six innings of work
DETROIT -- How in the world did Justin Verlander get in this spot?
He was the American League Rookie of the Year two seasons ago and an AL All-Star last year. With the Tigers' 9-7 loss to the Indians on Wednesday night at Comerica Park, he's back in a tie for the AL lead in losses alongside Seattle's Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn. Silva and Washburn have the stats of pitchers who have been beaten up; Verlander hasn't even given up as many hits as innings pitched, and his ERA didn't cross the 4.50 mark until his latest defeat.
For the Tigers, the question of how Verlander got here is almost moot at this point. Manager Jim Leyland wants his young ace to focus on what he can get out of it.
"He's a great young pitcher, and I think this has been a tough experience for him," Leyland said, "but it can be a valuable experience if you take advantage of it. He hasn't really struggled throughout his career very much, whether it's college, high school or professional. This is something that you try to figure out and move forward."
The silver lining for Verlander on Wednesday was that he felt like he had some of the best stuff he's had this late in the season. The problem is that he keeps throwing so much of it.
With 115 pitches on Wednesday, Verlander became the first pitcher in the Majors this year to cross the 3,000-pitch mark for the season. He was already averaging more than 17 pitches per inning entering the game, and that pace went up after this outing, in which those 115 pitches covered six innings of work.
That kind of labor can't hold up if he's going to rebound from this.
"He's just got to start commanding his fastball better," Leyland said, "and everything else might fall into place after that. But you can't be at 100 pitches night after night. You just can't do it."
In Wednesday's case, Verlander threw 101 pitches over his first five innings before adding on 14 to strand two runners in the sixth. Yet his relatively efficient fourth inning was the one that became his downfall because of a few pitches.
Verlander gave up three runs over the first two innings, yet took a 4-3 lead into the third thanks to three straight RBI singles from the Tigers in the bottom of the second. He retired the side in order in the third and moved ahead of Ryan Garko to lead off the fourth. With a 1-2 count, however, he went with a fastball that crept in too far on Garko and bounced off of his front elbow.
Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez came out to talk to Verlander after his first-pitch curveball for a ball to Kelly Shoppach. Verlander missed outside with a fastball on his next pitch, then got over the plate on a fastball that appeared intended for the outside corner by how catcher Brandon Inge lined up.
"Falling behind Shoppach, the ball's right down the middle of the plate," Leyland said. "You obviously have to try to throw that pitch down and away on the outer half if you can."
Shoppach deposited it into the bullpen for his sixth homer against Tigers pitching this season. Add on some insurance runs against Detroit's bullpen, including Shin-Soo Choo's two-run homer in the seventh, and that was that.
"Obviously I don't want to give up a home run at any point," Verlander said, "but it's 2-0, he's feeding my heater and he got it. That's the game of baseball."
Verlander had more of a problem with what he called bloop hits in the two-run second inning.
"When I get in on a guy and break his bat, it would be nice to get the result to be an out," Verlander said. "But that's the way it's been going all year. Hang with 'em."
That was not so much Leyland's concern.
"I think sometimes he gets on fast forward," Leyland said. "Whether he's trying to overthrow it or whether he's in a hurry to see the results, I'm not sure. But I think he's got to get in a consistent groove, which we haven't been able to get him in, to where he's commanding his fastball. It all starts with that. ...
"I think early on [in his career], with fine stuff, guys didn't know him and swung at a few more balls. I think they're laying off of some of that."
Verlander understands the point about fastball command, but he feels like he can get it there.
"The control of my fastball dictates everything," Verlander said. "It's been here, and it's not been. It's been inconsistent. I don't want to say it's not hard to fix, but I know that it's there. It's not like I've been a guy that's come up my whole life and been wild from day one. I'll lose a couple pitches here and there, and in the long haul, a couple pitches here and there add up quickly, especially with a pitch count of 100-110 pitches."
The percentage of strikes thrown is down from last year, but only slightly, according to baseball-reference.com. The percentage of his strikes swung at is around the same, and his slugging percentage allowed is up just one point. But his batting average allowed is up seven points from last year, he already has more walks than all of last season, and his strikeout ratio is down.
Thus, here he is.
"I think every game's a learning experience," Verlander said. "You just take from it what you will. Tonight, I take from it as one of those games."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.