Detroit — Justin Verlander seems convinced he has “turned the corner.” His manager insists his team isn’t far behind.
But the Toronto Blue Jays could’ve used some more convincing this week, just like the Mariners and A’s and Rangers and Indians before them. So will most of the fans at Comerica Park, where a crowd of 39,440 watched the Tigers drop another game in resounding fashion Thursday.
The final score was 7-3 in this matinee affair, marking the Tigers’ season-high fifth consecutive loss and 13th in their last 17 games. The final pitching line for Verlander wasn’t pretty, either, as he allowed five earned runs for the fourth time in his last five starts.
And yet as Verlander stood in front of his locker stall in the clubhouse afterward, he sounded surprisingly upbeat, using the term “encouraged” more than once.
“I feel like I’ve kind of turned the corner,” said Verlander, who was coming off a solid outing — and a rare win in this stretch — last Friday in Seattle. “I know the results don’t speak to that today — at all — but I’m optimistic moving forward.”
The velocity on his fastball, while hardly vintage Verlander, finally is ticking up after a sluggish spring. He touched 98 mph in his last start for the first time since Opening Day, and he hit 97 mph Thursday. His stuff also is “much better than it has been,” he says, after he made some mechanical adjustments last week. (“His stuff was outstanding, really,” manager Brad Ausmus agreed.)
And for all those wailing about the Tigers’ recent skid, well, Verlander politely suggests they stuff it.
“Right now, everybody’s saying we’re playing like crap (and) we’re not the team everybody thought we were,” he said, pausing as he shook his head. “Whatever. In this clubhouse, we believe in ourselves.
“A week from now, we could look back and we could’ve won seven straight. Because one ball bounced somebody’s way and everything just starts going the right way.”
If, or when, that happens, it’ll be a relief to them all, though, because this latest turn — from the best record in baseball to the Bad News Bears of late — has them all scratching their heads.
The Tigers hadn’t lost 13 of 17 in a single season since 2010, when they fell out of the playoff hunt in early August and finished 81-81, 13 games behind the Twins. They hadn’t lost five in a row at home since the end of the 2008 season, when Ausmus was still playing for the Astros.
“You certainly get frustrated,” Ausmus said. “I’m getting frustrated. I know the players are getting frustrated. You want to win games and we’re not winning games.”
What’s more, they’re losing them in every possible way. One game, it’s the starting pitching digging an early hole. The next, it’s the bullpen imploding after a brilliant start. Some days, it’s the anemic offense, which is hitting .178 with runners in scoring position the last 17 games. Other days, it’s the fielding that has regressed badly in recent weeks. As Ausmus put it Thursday, “We’re not really doing anything very well.”
Even the supposed fixes are getting broken.
Wednesday, the Tigers finally called up rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez to try to patch the Andrew Romine-sized hole in the bottom of the lineup. But Suarez injured his knee on an awkward slide in the late innings of his debut and couldn’t make his first major league start Thursday. And right on cue, Romine grounded into a double play to end the Tigers’ last, best chance for a rally in the seventh inning.
As a result, a team that was threatening to run away and hide from the rest of the A.L. Central is now just a handful of games ahead of the last-place team in the division.
“It’s a funny game,” Verlander said, though he was doing more smirking than smiling after this loss. “It’s kind of a roller coaster the first couple months, to play so well and we’re not playing well at all right now. It seems like everything kind of snowballs — something doesn’t go right, and then things don’t go right on top of it.
“But we’ve got to stay positive. We’re a good ballclub. I’m staying positive. I’m looking at the good side of things.”
Easier said than done, of course. Even for Verlander, the veteran ace who has been through this before, tinkering with his mechanics — and tinkering some more, if needed — until things eventually come roaring to life.
He’s 6-5 with a 4.19 ERA. But he entered Thursday’s start averaging 6.49 strikeouts per nine innings — his lowest since his rookie year — with an unsettling K/BB ratio (1.84, 34th-best among qualified AL starters) thus far. And he didn’t help himself in either category, issuing four more walks while striking out four against this red-hot Blue Jays lineup, one that’s dangerous even without slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who sat with a stiff back.
Still, it was a misplayed fly ball in right-center field — Austin Jackson thought Torii Hunter had it, but he clearly didn’t — that led to a three-run fourth inning Thursday. And then after Verlander blew away the Blue Jays in the fifth — “That might’ve been the best inning he’s had all year,” Ausmus said — and the Tigers scratched out a run to tie the score, Toronto blew the game open in the sixth.
Verlander walked Adam Lind to lead off the inning, then served up back-to-back homers — first Juan Francisco and then Brett Lawrie — for the first time in two years. Just like that, the good vibes at Comerica Park were going, going … gone.
“When it rains, it pours,” Verlander said.
Yep. Funny game, all right. Thursday there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.