Detroit — They’re looking up now, for the first time in a long time.
And just like the fans, they have to be wondering. Not just how and why, but also when. As in, when will it end?
The Tigers keep sliding, and Tuesday night, after an 11-4 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Royals, the division lead they’d held for nearly a full year — since last July 3 —finally slipped away.
It’s not gone for good, obviously. Maybe only for a day, as these two AL Central teams continue their four-game series this afternoon at Comerica Park.
As hot as the Royals are right now — they’ve won nine in a row and 12 of their last 14 — it’s probably worth noting they haven’t led the division this late in the season since 2003. And as Tigers manager Brad Ausmus coolly said after Tuesday’s loss, “I don’t care who’s in first place until the end of the season.”
Still, he’s no longer shrugging off his team’s struggles as a passing phase.
“I’m sick of it, they’re sick of it, the fans are sick of it,” Ausmus said, rattling off the growing list of ill feelings before nodding toward the gathered media and adding, “I’m sure you’re tired of writing about it.”
Hey, with the Lions in town, we’re sort of used to it.
But this is something new — and startling — for these Tigers. They’ve won the division three years running, and were the odds-on favorites to win it again this year.
A month ago, they were flying high in their Zubaz, owners of the best record in baseball (27-12) and coming off consecutive sweeps of the Orioles and Red Sox.
Since then, though, they’ve lost 19 of 28 games to squander their sizable division lead. And while troubleshooters can point to any number of issues — skittish hitting, bad defense, a closer in a serious funk — the root cause seems pretty obvious, though no less puzzling.
Simply put, in the last month, the Tigers’ pair of aces have been clubbed.
In his six starts in that span, Max Scherzer’s ERA is 6.86 — and that’s including last week’s stellar outing in Chicago where he pitched a shutout for his first career complete game. Justin Verlander, meanwhile, owns a 7.88 ERA over his last six starts in this skid, allowing five runs or more a handful of times.
More like Sigh Young
That’s 63 runs in 12 combined starts for the two of the last three American League Cy Young winners. And that just doesn’t compute.
“I know they’re better than this,” Ausmus said. “Clearly, they’re better than this. Everybody in this room knows they’re better than this. They’ve set a high standard. But they’ve set a high standard because they’re good. You don’t just lose it overnight.”
No, you don’t. Not at their age, certainly. Scherzer’s the reigning AL Cy Young winner and a guy whose ERA was under 2.00 a month ago. Verlander pitched like one again last fall in the postseason, and even after offseason core-muscle surgery he started the season strong — he was sitting at 4-1 with a 2.67 ERA after beating the Royals in early May.
“They’re horses,” Ausmus said. “And this isn’t the way they normally pitch. You certainly can’t take ’em out of the rotation. That’s not an option. So the only option is to fix ’em.”
But how? And how quickly?
Scherzer looked like he’d fixed things in his last start against the White Sox. But he followed that up with one of the worst outings of his career, allowing 10 earned runs in four-plus innings of work against the Royals, matching his career high set against the Twins back in 2010.
And after a 10-pitch first inning Tuesday, he got lost in a 51-pitch (!) second, allowing seven hits and seven runs in a head-shaking string of failures. The first eight batters in the inning reached base safely — including two-run homers for both Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas — and the Royals sent 11 men to the plate before it was over, along with the game.
In the postgame clubhouse, long after he’d thrown his last pitch, Scherzer was still simmering.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I didn’t pitch well, and there’s no other way to put it. I can give you all the generic crap you want. But at the end of the day, it came down to I didn’t execute with two strikes. I’m not putting hitters away in those counts. And that’s the difference right now.”
To hear Scherzer talk, it’s more of a mental adjustment than a mechanical one that’s needed. “And maybe,” he said after Tuesday’s shellacking, “it takes this to realize that.”
As for Verlander, he sat down with Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones on Tuesday afternoon to dissect his latest meltdown. They watched video from his AL MVP-winning form in 2011, compared it to his last start and, according to Ausmus, “We definitely saw something different.” The manager declined to get into specifics about Verlander’s mechanical problems, but insisted they’re “extremely correctable.”
And he again dismissed the idea that Verlander, at age 31 and with more than 14,000 pitches thrown the last 3˝ seasons, needs to reinvent himself as something other than a power pitcher.
“It’s the location,” Ausmus said, shaking his head. “It’s not the velocity. He’s got plenty of velocity.”
Whatever it is, he needs to find it fast. And so does Scherzer. Because this team isn’t going anywhere if the horses don’t lead the way.