June 24, 2013 at 7:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Bullpen bails out Tigers' struggling ace Justin Verlander

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

The only thing that makes sense about the Tigers these days is that theyíre 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 Tigersí acclaimed right-hander gets rescued by a bullpen under siege, you might think youíve 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 theyíre 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 arenít enough to stagger the former Cy Young and MVP winner, but theyíre enough to baffle him. And to make him more insistent it can be fixed.

ďIím frustrated in myself, obviously, but thereís no point in getting upset,Ē Verlander said. ďThatís sports, thereís ups and downs, nobodyís at the peak of their game forever. Iíll get back there. I will. Itís just finding that click, finding that rhythm.Ē

Itís 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, heís 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 hasnít made it past the fifth. (Silent alarm). His velocity is down a tad, but not much. Heís just not consistently putting pitches where heís aiming, and while itís far short of a panic, it is a puzzle.

ďItís not like Iím throwing the ball all over the place,Ē Verlander said. ďItís small, just catching too much plate, or just a little off. At this level, it doesnít matter how good you are if youíre not locating your pitches. Iím healthy, so thatís not an issue.Ē

Out of rhythm

Thatís the most important issue, and itís the main reason Jim Leyland isnít 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 doesnít 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. Thatís why thereís a bit of consternation, although it could disappear at any point in a wave of strikeouts.

ďHe just doesnít have a smooth, rhythm delivery right now, whether itís rushing a little or trying to get the out before he throws the ball,Ē Leyland said. ďYou go back to the drawing board and look at the tapes. Iíd be concerned if he was sore or his stuff wasnít good, but thatís not the case.Ē

Verlander admits thereís 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 doesnít buy it. This isnít a guy who ever seems awed by the attention.

ďIím not worried about that, I block that stuff out,Ē Verlander said. ďRegardless if Iím making one cent or 500 million a year, Iím going to do what I have to do to be at my best. I canít put into words what Iím trying to find. Itís that feel, to where I know I can repeat that pitch. When itís there, itís there, and when itís not, itís not.Ē

Help from other sources

Thankfully for the Tigers, when it hasnít been there for Verlander and others in the normally powerful rotation, theyíve 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 Smylyís 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 ďphenomenal,Ē although Smyly leans more toward fundamental.

ďMy stuff is not very overpowering,Ē Smyly said. ďI just try to fill the strike zone and put the ball in play.Ē

Thatís an idea for Verlander, who keeps posting peculiar numbers. The Red Sox swung and missed at only six pitches and fouled off 28. Verlanderís fastball isnít intimidating right now, but until he finds whatís missing, itís encouraging to see other arms available, and increasingly valuable.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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