June 19, 2013 at 10:39 am

John Niyo

'Vintage' Justin Verlander missing in shaky outing vs. Orioles

Detroit -- Jim Leyland said he finally saw the “look” last week.

But just when it was starting to look like Justin Verlander had found his dominant form again, well, look what happened.

Another oddly ineffective outing for the Tigers’ ace Tuesday night that left many at Comerica Park shaking their head. Verlander included, though his visible frustration centered more on the near-misses at home plate — he questioned umpire Mike Winters more than once, then later apologized for showing him up — than what’s missing in the bigger picture.

“I feel like I threw 10-15 pitches tonight that were pretty doggone close to being perfect,” he insisted afterward. “But they were just off.”

And so was Verlander, as a result. He lasted just five innings in a 5-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, ending a 17-game streak in which Tigers starters had allowed three or fewer runs and his own personal stretch of outings in which he lasted seven innings.

“I feel like I’ve been getting better and better and better,” Verlander said. “But that’s not always going to work towards a perfect game. You’re not going to get better every time. There’s ups and downs and peaks and valleys.”

Problem is, with Verlander the past few years, we’ve mostly just seen the good stuff. And while nobody’s doubting he still has it, even the Tigers’ $180-million man on the mound admits, “It’s been a battle so far.”

“I’m not saying I’ve regressed,” he added. “It’s just one of those games.”

Not quite vintage

After he was tagged for five runs, allowing seven hits — including a pair of home runs — and issued four walks, Verlander’s ERA climbed to a season-high 3.72. He has pitched into the eighth inning just once all season — facing one batter, at that — after doing it eight times in the first three months of 2012

“It hasn’t happened yet,” he said, “but I’m fully confident it will.”

His manager is, too, of course. Before the game, Jim Leyland was raving about the “vintage Justin” he’d seen in his last start: seven shutout innings in Kansas City that were spoiled by Jose Valverde’s ninth-inning gopher ball.

“I thought he was absolutely terrific,” Leyland said of that outing. “I thought he was almost to a ‘T’ himself. I may be just dreaming this up in my mind, but what I saw was that ‘lock-in’ look that I’ve become accustomed to, and it was pretty impressive.”

What he saw Tuesday night, with Verlander facing a team he’d never lost to before — 8-0 in 14 career starts against the Orioles — was decidedly less so. And the problem was the same as it was in a four-game stretch in May where Verlander was anything but vintage.

“Well, his command of his fastball was not good,” Leyland said. “And that pretty much sums up his outing. … He wasn’t missing by a lot, but he was missing. And when you don’t command your fastball it usually spells trouble.”

In trouble

A night after Max Scherzer worked out of a bases-loaded jam and then rolled to his 10th win of the season without a loss, Verlander escaped some early trouble of his own, leaving the bases full in the top of the third.

At the time, it looked like another positive sign the old Verlander was back, too, as he reared back and threw nine fastballs of 97-98 mph to Nick Markakis and Adam Jones.

But then came the fourth inning, and after one-out walk to Matt Wieters, there went another home run off the bat of J.J. Hardy, his third in his last five at-bats against Verlander.

That staked the Orioles to a 2-0 lead, and an inning later it grew to 5-0 when Adam Jones followed a leadoff double and Markakis’ third walk of the night with an opposite-field shot over the fence.

“He was up there trying to ambush me first-pitch fastball and I gave it to him,” Verlander said. “It wasn’t well located and it was up, outer half, right where he wanted it.”

Clearly, that’s not vintage Verlander. His fastball’s supposed to be right where he wants it, not where the hitters do. And right now, it’s simply not, even after considerable “tinkering” — as Verlander calls it — this spring.

Prior to Tuesday’s start, right-handed batters were hitting .276 against Verlander this season, 40 points higher than his career numbers. And of the seven home runs he has allowed now, six belong to righties in 149 plate appearances.

He only allowed eight to righties in 420 plate appearances all of last season.

Asked if that was at all puzzling to him, Verlander shrugged and said, “Not really. I don’t know the numbers. But that’s probably just fastball location.”

And right now, that’s probably all there is to it. Everybody’s looking for answers, sure. But no one’s looking more intently than him.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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After he was tagged for five runs, allowing seven hits — including a pair of home runs — and issued four walks, Justin Verlander's ERA climbed to a season-high 3.72. / Elizabeth Conley/The Detroit News
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