June 24, 2013 at 7:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Bullpen bails out Tigers' struggling ace Justin Verlander

Detroit — No way you saw this twist coming. The Tigers won again with — (dramatic pause) —their bullpen. And that helped them overcome another wobbly outing from —(dramatic pause) — Justin Verlander.

The only thing that makes sense about the Tigers these days is that they’re in first place. Oh, and their offense can be as explosive as advertised with Austin Jackson back in the lineup. That was on display Sunday as the Tigers slipped past the Red Sox 7-5, with huge help from the bullpen and a little help from the umps on a dropped-or-not-dropped fly ball by Boston right fielder Daniel Nava.

Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit salvaged another shaky start by Verlander, and when the Tigers’ acclaimed right-hander gets rescued by a bullpen under siege, you might think you’ve stumbled into an alternate universe. Frankly, Verlander has been feeling that way for a while.

The Tigers desperately need Smyly and Benoit to be good, and you could argue they’re two of their most important pitchers right now. Smyly posted another 223innings of scoreless relief, and has allowed one earned run in his last 10 appearances with an ERA of 0.52.

Those are eye-popping numbers, and so are these: Verlander is 8-5 with a 3.90 ERA, and in his last nine starts, his ERA is 6.04. Nine starts aren’t enough to stagger the former Cy Young and MVP winner, but they’re enough to baffle him. And to make him more insistent it can be fixed.

“I’m frustrated in myself, obviously, but there’s no point in getting upset,” Verlander said. “That’s sports, there’s ups and downs, nobody’s at the peak of their game forever. I’ll get back there. I will. It’s just finding that click, finding that rhythm.”

It’s been a while since Verlander was searching this fervently to command his pitches, going back to his 11-17 record in 2008. He lasted only five innings against the Red Sox, leaving with a 4-3 deficit after throwing 112 pitches.

Verlander has been so dominant, he’s naturally ratcheted expectations, to the point where any departure before the eighth inning rings a silent alarm. Well, in five of his last nine starts, he hasn’t made it past the fifth. (Silent alarm). His velocity is down a tad, but not much. He’s just not consistently putting pitches where he’s aiming, and while it’s far short of a panic, it is a puzzle.

“It’s not like I’m throwing the ball all over the place,” Verlander said. “It’s small, just catching too much plate, or just a little off. At this level, it doesn’t matter how good you are if you’re not locating your pitches. I’m healthy, so that’s not an issue.”

Out of rhythm

That’s the most important issue, and it’s the main reason Jim Leyland isn’t freaking out. On May 5, Verlander flirted with a no-hitter against the Astros and his ERA was 1.55. Since then, he has allowed 61 hits and 22 walks in 5023 innings.

Verlander doesn’t shy from challenges and always is eager to take on more. Sometimes he tries to take on too much, although he has grown from a brash fireballer into a savvier pitcher. That’s why there’s a bit of consternation, although it could disappear at any point in a wave of strikeouts.

“He just doesn’t have a smooth, rhythm delivery right now, whether it’s rushing a little or trying to get the out before he throws the ball,” Leyland said. “You go back to the drawing board and look at the tapes. I’d be concerned if he was sore or his stuff wasn’t good, but that’s not the case.”

Verlander admits there’s probably some sort of mechanical malfunction and he expects to uncover it. But he pretty much chuckles at any other theories.

Being a diligent reporter, I questioned him on his eating habits, and he swears he still gets the same Taco Bell meal the night before every start. As for the notion that his new $200-million contract might have heaped on the pressure, he doesn’t buy it. This isn’t a guy who ever seems awed by the attention.

“I’m not worried about that, I block that stuff out,” Verlander said. “Regardless if I’m making one cent or 500 million a year, I’m going to do what I have to do to be at my best. I can’t put into words what I’m trying to find. It’s that feel, to where I know I can repeat that pitch. When it’s there, it’s there, and when it’s not, it’s not.”

Help from other sources

Thankfully for the Tigers, when it hasn’t been there for Verlander and others in the normally powerful rotation, they’ve started to find something else. Outside the Jose Valverde Vortex, Smyly (1.75 ERA) and Benoit (2.01) quietly have done their jobs. Benoit is the closer for now, while Smyly’s role is becoming more vital.

Leyland would like to limit Smyly to one-inning appearances so he can be used more often. Verlander called the 24-year-old lefty “phenomenal,” although Smyly leans more toward fundamental.

“My stuff is not very overpowering,” Smyly said. “I just try to fill the strike zone and put the ball in play.”

That’s an idea for Verlander, who keeps posting peculiar numbers. The Red Sox swung and missed at only six pitches and fouled off 28. Verlander’s fastball isn’t intimidating right now, but until he finds what’s missing, it’s encouraging to see other arms available, and increasingly valuable.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Tigers starter Justin Verlander has not pitched beyond the fifth inning in his last two starts. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News