June 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers' Justin Verlander down in the count, and concerns keep rising

Detroit — Justin Verlander isn’t fooling anyone right now, and you hope he isn’t fooling himself. A troubling trend has become something more, and the Tigers have a problem without a clear solution.

This goes deeper than their awful display in an 11-8 loss to the Royals Monday night. Their division lead is down to a half-game, and their once-feared starter is as down as he’s ever been. The Tigers can’t overreact to one ugly loss, but Verlander has to find a way to react better to his struggles.

Not much is working, and if Verlander needs a break to figure it out, or a lengthy session with pitching coach Jeff Jones, he should do it. Whatever adjustments he’s making aren’t getting results, as he staggers through the worst stretch of a renowned career. This isn’t about being a dominant workhorse right now, maybe not for the foreseeable future. Verlander (6-7, 4.98 ERA) has to get back to being serviceable first, and obviously thinks he can. I’ve always thought he could regain form, but the longer this goes, the more dangerous it gets.

“It’s probably the most frustrating point in my career,” Verlander said. “I gotta work through it. It’s easy to look at things and say there weren’t a lot of hard-hit balls. But it seems to be a running trend, so I need to make better pitches.”

Frustration boils

It’s hard to watch, and it has to be harder to take. When Verlander left the mound at the end of the sixth inning, having surrendered seven earned runs and 12 hits, there was a smattering of boos from the Comerica Park crowd. He appeared furious with himself, yelling into his glove, muffling his irritation as the Royals took a big lead and rolled to their eighth straight victory.

It’s not just that Verlander is laboring, with a 7.83 ERA in his past seven starts. It’s that batters seem so relaxed facing him, the intimidation factor gone. Verlander hit 95 on the radar gun Monday night, but his pitches kept riding high. Hitters aren’t biting on anything borderline, waiting for a meatball over the plate.

If Brad Ausmus’ concern is rocketing, he hid it well. Asked if a short break would help Verlander, Ausmus waved it off.

“We’re not really in a position where we can skip a start right now, we don’t have any options,” Ausmus said. “I wouldn’t skip a start with Justin Verlander anyway. There’s really no reason to be concerned about it. He’s gonna pitch every fifth day. If we have an off day, I might push people back and give him an extra day. But he’s gonna pitch.”

Fair enough. The preferred way to get out of a slump is to pitch your way out, and that’s what Verlander is determined to do. His confidence and ego are great strengths, and he can’t let them become impediments now. He has talked repeatedly about seeing positive signs, but you wonder if he’s reluctant to accept a new normal, because it’s so abnormal. These days, it seems every mistake is haunting him.

On an 0-1 pitch to nemesis Billy Butler with the bases loaded in the fifth, Verlander tried to fire a 94-mph fastball past him. Butler crushed it over Austin Jackson’s head in center field, three runs scored and the Royals took a 4-2 lead. The next inning, former Tiger Omar Infante slammed a three-run homer on a high fastball and the rout was on, and fans weren’t pleased. The first of a four-game series was a blowout until the Tigers tacked on six runs in the ninth.

“Fans are frustrated and so am I,” Verlander said. “They’ve cheered me plenty, they have the right to boo. If I was sitting in the stands, I’d probably boo myself too. But I will be better. And they’ll cheer again.”

He said it like he believes it, and I’m sure he does. He even sprinkled in a few jabs of sarcasm, suggesting he might revamp his mechanics and become a modern-day Luis Tiant, the old Red Sox pitcher who had all sorts of odd deliveries.

Verlander said he’s not hurt — “unequivocally no” — and feels great after offseason core muscle surgery. When I asked if he needed a break, he dismissed it with a chuckle. He’s 31 with no apparent arm troubles, so this has to be a fixable problem, right? Yes, but it will take significant work to do it.

No longer striking fear

Many of the metrics suggest Verlander’s days of dominance are over, that once a power pitcher loses velocity, it’s difficult to adjust. Nobody defies times and numbers in baseball, but I wouldn’t bet against Verlander. He won’t ever be the 100-mph machine again, but with a four-pitch repertoire, he certainly still can be good.

“It’s funny because the last time against Kansas City, he pitched well and everyone said even if he gets older and loses velocity, he’s got the pitches to get people out,” Ausmus said. “And now he’s scuffling and everyone’s saying he’s done. I don’t think he’s done. I think Justin Verlander will be just fine. But I do think pitchers in general, as they age, their body changes and they have to make adjustments.”

Verlander admits he could get to that point, but doesn’t think he’s there yet. Without the 99-mph strikeout pitch, he has to tempt batters with nibbles around the plate, and his control simply hasn’t been good enough. His walk rate per nine innings is 3.8, second-highest of his career, and his strikeout rate is 6.6, second-lowest of his career.

This has advanced beyond a narrow pattern, and Verlander’s boundaries are being tested. Once he recognizes certain changes are necessary, the next step is making them work, a process that might be more painful than he ever expected.



Detroit Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, left comes out to talk with pitcher Justin Verlander and catcher Alex Avila after the Kansas City Royals' Billy Butler hit a three-run double in the fifth inning. Verlander gave up seven earned runs on 12 hits in an 11-8 loss Monday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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