May 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Recent slip by Tigers, Verlander likely just a blip on the season

Brad Ausmus after loss to Rangers
Brad Ausmus after loss to Rangers: The Tigers' manager talks about his team's recent struggles and Justin Verlander's defeat against the Rangers.

Detroit ó If you close your eyes and concentrate, you might remember when the Tigers used to be really, really good. Like, a week ago. That sheen of invincibility with their glossy starting pitchers? Itís gone for now ó not gone for good ó and itís hard to figure out where it went.

Justin Verlander is virtually unrecognizable at the moment, and so is the team. It happens in a long season, but what happened again to Verlander on Sunday was concerning. Itís not inexplicable lately when he has a rough outing, and thatís inexplicable.

Another huge crowd witnessed another flop, as the Rangers pounded the Tigers 12-4 to officially turn an odd slide into an ugly slide. Thatís six losses in seven games, and it could end up being just a blip. In fact, the way itís unfolded, with every starter other than Anibal Sanchez getting knocked around, itís likely a blip. Aces donít turn into jokers in a week, and weíll learn more during a tough road trip that starts today in Oakland.

Verlanderís struggles are pushing the boundaries of a blip, coming off a wobbly 2013, followed by off-season core-muscle surgery. Weíve learned not to wonder too deeply about him because he tinkers early, toys often, and usually returns to dominant form at the end. But over-tinkering can lead to over-thinking, which led to Verlander testing a new arms-over-the-head delivery Sunday.

He abandoned it early in the game, and nothing really changed. The Rangers feasted on his off-speed stuff and didnít fear the fastball, which rarely touched 95 mph. Verlander gave up 11 hits, nine runs (six earned) in five-plus innings and struck out only one. When Alex Rios laced a two-run triple to make it 7-2 in the fifth, you could hear a smattering of boos from the sellout crowd of 42,583.

Verlanderís command was a mess ó just 62 of his 109 pitches were strikes ó so you can bet thereís more tinkering ahead, for better or worse.

ďIím not gonna stay where Iím at,Ē he said. ďIím determined. Iíve got the mental confidence to turn the page. I know how good I am, and Iím not gonna dwell on these past starts. Thatís not me and itís never been me.Ē

Residual effects

Verlander has surrendered five or more earned runs in three consecutive starts, one of his rockiest stretches since 2008. Heís 5-4 with a 4.04 ERA and his WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is an unseemly 1.51, the highest of his career. For comparison, his WHIP was 0.92 in his 2011 Cy Young season.

Although heís recovered from the January surgery, he admits there could be some residual effect. What exactly it is, he doesnít know. Itís a familiar befuddlement, as Verlander struggled early last season and didnít regain his famous edge until late.

ďEvery now and then, itíll get a little sore,Ē Verlander said. ďI know Torii (Hunter) had a similar surgery and he said it took him a year to really feel he was back. I donít feel pain when Iím throwing. It could still be weak, who knows? Thatís not something I can concern myself with.Ē

Itís not something manager Brad Ausmus is concerned about either. The Tigers are 28-18 and in first place after a week of horrid pitching, so the rookie manager also leans heavily toward the Big Blip Theory, not the Big Bang Theory.

Watching the Tigersí talented rotation get pummeled is like being served cold soup for a week at your favorite restaurant. It makes no sense and it may never happen again, but youíre going to wonder about that next bowl of minestrone.

ďThe last couple starts havenít been vintage Justin Verlander, but this guy is a competitor, heíll get his kinks worked out and heíll be back,Ē Ausmus said. ď(Tinkering) is part of what makes him great. His stuff is great and his makeup is unbelievable. (Roger) Clemensí approach to pitching was very similar ó he would tinker to try and make himself better.Ē

A weak week

The search for the perfect delivery can be painstaking and often fruitless. Verlander was fiddling with all sorts of release points Sunday, and while hitters didnít know where the ball was coming from, he had no idea where it was going.

Itís magnified right now because Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello also had poor outings, and what a difference a weak-armed week makes. The Tigers had won six straight after sweeping the Red Sox, then got swept by the Indians and lost three of four to the Rangers, outscored 35-15.

This has nothing to do with the Tigersí plane troubles that made their trek to Cleveland so difficult. And I doubt itís about over-confidence or boredom after stomping to an early lead in the division. Baseball is a funny, humbling game ó heck, the world champion Red Sox have lost 10 straight ó and thatís partly why Verlander isnít freaked out.

ďYouíre trying to find the right pieces to fit, but itís not like Iím questioning everything,Ē he said. ďIíve got the past and Iíve got the mental fortitude, so itís only looking forward and finding it. Thereís no doubt in my mind I will.Ē

If there was any doubt, he wouldnít say it. Verlander falls into these ruts and claws his way out, and so do the Tigers. Slips become blips, and they certainly hope itís nothing more than that.

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

'I've got the mental confidence to turn the page,' Justin Verlander says. 'I'm not gonna dwell on these past starts.' / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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