Justin Verlander, right, said Thursday night, after his abysmal outing, he’s been feeling “completely healthy.” (Associated Press)
Arlington, Texas — Justin Verlander hasn't been himself in his last two starts. Should you worry?
Of course, you should. But choose the right reason to do it.
Let's discard this reason first: His health.
Verlander is not hurt. His arm isn't sore. He said Thursday night, after his abysmal outing, he's been feeling "completely healthy."
And because he hit 99 mph on the speed gun, his velocity serves as testament to his health.
In fact, manager Jim Leyland viewed it a positive "because I don't have to answer questions about his velocity any more."
But an ace not pitching well is still an ace to worry about -- because his team can't be the same, and won't be the same, until he's winning games again.
It's the same as in most sports. If a quarterback stinks for two consecutive games, but says he's fine, you don't worry about his health. You worry that while he's figuring it out, his team pays a price.
It takes the highest caliber player to warrant such concern, but Verlander ranks as that. One misstep raises an eyebrow; two creates questions.
When he walks two batters with the bases loaded in the same game, equaling the number of bases-loaded walks he issued in the first 239 starts of his career -- and when those two walks follow a start in which he did it once -- A) you're stunned and B) you ask what's wrong?
When he allows seven runs in one inning, as he did in the third inning of Thursday night's 10-4 loss to the Texas Rangers -- the most runs he's allowed in any single inning of his career — you don't just shrug your shoulders and say "it happens."
Because it doesn't happen.
Not to Justin Verlander
So you should be concerned that it did.
When he's a strike away from getting out of a rocky inning with the score tied, but serves up a nothing 0-2 pitch that results in a two-run double, as he did to Mitch Moreland, you don't just say "hmm, that's unusual," you say, "Uh oh, what's going on?"
And when Verlander follows that double by giving up a three-run home run to a struggling Geovany Soto, hitting .170 because he's 1-for-18 at the time, you don't just say, "That's bad," you say "man, that's strangely bad."
And because it was strangely bad, following a start in which Verlander walked five in a 7-6 loss to Cleveland, it makes his next start (in Cleveland) all the more important.
Order will be restored
But here's why I believe these back-to-back blips won't become chronic. Notice, I'm not saying he'll correct it right away, such as dominating the Indians the next time out.
I don't think it will take long, though.
Verlander already seems to have a good grasp of how to get back to being himself. At his locker following the game, he wasn't at a loss for words.
He also wasn't at a loss for solutions.
Part of what makes him a great pitcher is his determination to be a great pitcher. Plus he knows full well that if he's physically fine, there's no tolerable reason for back-to-back clunkers.
One, yes. Any pitcher can have a bad game. But when bad leads to worse, it's time to stop it then and there.
"I'm somebody who can turn things around in a hurry," he said. "I know what I need to do."
What I liked about Verlander's postgame comments not only was the sound of that determination, but that instead of making the cure complicated, with hours planned in the video room, he said he's reverting to basics.
Repetition of pitches.
Repetition of delivery.
Getting back to feeling right instead of just looking right.
"My velocity was a little bit down, so I was tinkering," Verlander said. "I've felt good, but the top end hadn't been there.
"So I just told (pitching coach Jeff Jones) I think we've been tinkering too much. No video. It's going to be (found in) the bullpen."
Just as Leyland said about Anibal Sanchez in his last start that "a pitcher has to work hard to keep the ball down," a pitcher also has to work hard to find the answers he didn't find while still in a game.
Verlander has always worked hard.
What's happened the last two starts hasn't happened because he shirked his preparation. It's because he can't set up his other pitches by commanding his fastball.
When he can trust his fastball again, he'll be himself again. Elementary -- but he'll redevelop that trust only with extensive bullpen work between starts.
In the meantime, be concerned. It's OK.
Until Verlander is Verlander again, it's even natural.