August 28, 2013 at 1:50 am

Lynn Henning

Forever the answer, Justin Verlander now the Tigers' biggest question

Detroit — All those seasons, all those games, the Tigers answered with one name: Justin Verlander.

Opening Day starter? Verlander.

The guy who would stop your losing streak? Verlander.

A playoff series ruler and, yes, savior, as was the case in last year’s first round against the A’s? It was their faithful ace, Verlander.

Tuesday night at Comerica Park, the pitcher who for so long has been a solution to Tigers problems and slumps, instead ranked as the team’s No. 1 question.

“I really don’t know the answer to that,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, after he was asked to explain Verlander’s latest mystery act, which went down as a 6-3 loss to the A’s in a rain-crimped game. “I really don’t know what to tell you.”

Down the clubhouse corridor, standing against his locker, Verlander was as confused as his bosses, as baffled as Detroit’s formerly adoring fans who now prefer a game pitched by Max Scherzer or Doug Fister.

“I need to go out there and be able to repeat,” Verlander was saying after a guy who owns Cy Young and Most Valuable Player trophies slipped to 12-10, with a so-so 3.73 ERA.

But he can’t seem to repeat the gilded delivery that crafted no-hitters and earned loads of postseason treasure. In earlier seasons, Verlander all but vaporized batters with his 99-mph fastball and with a curveball that broke like a lightning bolt. You felt half-sorry for the poor chaps as they stood at home plate, all but denuded by Verlander’s repertoire.

Now, at least on a comparative level, it’s gone. The fury. The dominance. Most of all, his celestial status as Detroit’s pitching deity.

But before he is tossed aside by fans as easily as he was whacking hitters a year and more ago, it’s probably wise to remember Verlander, at 30, won’t easily be as good as he was during his dreamy 2011-2012 reign nor as sloppy as he has pitched too many times in 2013.

He can — and probably will — straighten out ahead of October when the Tigers figure to play postseason baseball even as their ace makes a mess of things.

And that expectation is based on a thought Verlander advanced a few minutes after Tuesday’s water-logged game had been mercifully called.

“I’ve been through this before,” he said, speaking of a tough season in 2008. “I’m a better pitcher now.”

This is what the Tigers and Verlander must count on during a division race that will probably tighten before champagne is sprayed in the Tigers clubhouse. It is the reality Verlander’s best friends during a bad stretch are his skill and experience.

He retains the same powerhouse arm and physical tools. He can still fire his fastball in the 96-mph-plus range. He still has at least a feel on four pitches.

What has been missing is his old arm slot. It works in unison with his feet, his legs, his hips, his exceptional pitching body, to fire that searing fastball and, every bit as much, the biting, leg-cracking curveball that is Verlander’s signature second pitch.

This is where the secret, the mystery — the puzzle — of Verlander’s 2013 problems are hidden. He is working steadily with Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, breaking down video and fine-tuning bullpen sessions.

He had a reunion with his old rhythm a few weeks back. But, in keeping with pitching’s cruel ways, it was more of a fling than a relationship. Quickly, Verlander was back in the void.

“I found something that clicked,” he said, shaking his head at how temporary it had been. “One start, two starts. It was not a big enough sample size.”

By the time he next starts a game, it will be September. Weeks and days are melting away, not only for the Tigers and for their playoff and postseason chances, but for Verlander to find that old prowess.

The Tigers have deep starting pitching and can always make a case for pushing ahead, no matter how Verlander is pitching. But in their particular clubhouse they have relied on Verlander during past years as much as Leyland’s batting order has required a functioning, flourishing Miguel Cabrera.

The ace understands this. He has pride in his role. But he needs to fix what’s broken.

“My deadline is the playoffs,” he said, which his team agrees would be the latest they can wait for their ace to resume his old ways.

Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander leaves the dugout in the fifth inning Tuesday against the Athletics. Verlander gave up five runs (three earned) in taking his 10th loss of the season. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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