Detroit — Either way, it’s going to be awkward.
Whether he stays or goes, Justin Verlander has to know that by now. And as he took the mound again Monday night for the series opener against the Kansas City Royals, you could tell the fans at Comerica Park sensed it, too.
“I don’t know if this is the last time we’ll see him pitch for the Tigers,” said Craig Schmidt, who was sitting in Section 117 about 90 minutes before Monday’s first pitch on a beautiful late-July evening in downtown Detroit. “But if it is, I didn’t want to miss it. And I didn’t want my son to, either.”
Schmidt laughed as he motioned toward the visitors’ dugout, where 15-year-old Evan Schmidt — the one wearing a No. 35 Tigers jersey — was among a crowd of autograph seekers lingering as the Royals finished up batting practice.
“If you can believe it,” Schmidt said, “he was there for Verlander’s first start. Fourth of July (in 2005) in Cleveland, we were down there visiting family and caught the second game of that doubleheader. It wasn’t Evan’s first major-league game — probably his second, I think. But that’s his Tiger. That’s the player he identifies with, I guess, as he grew up rooting for them. … So it’ll be tough if it happens.”
Yet it’s that uncertainty that really makes this so difficult right now, for all parties involved. Goodbyes are never easy, but the longer they take, they more uncomfortable they get.
And as Verlander stood in front of his locker in the Tigers clubhouse late Monday night, after another strong outing went for naught in a 5-3 extra-inning loss to Kansas City, the former MVP and Cy Young winner admitted he didn’t quite know how to feel, or what to say.
“I guess there might be a fleeting moment where you say, ‘This might be the last time.’ But it’s very fleeting,” Verlander admitted. “It’s, ‘I appreciate it, but we’ve gotta score a run here. We’ve got to win a game.’ …
“It’s kind of in the back of my mind that you never know what could happen. So it’s back there. And there is a moment walking off the mound where you just take a second to appreciate it.”
Monday night, just about everyone at the ballpark did. And how could you not? After weeks — and months — of speculation about the Tigers’ inevitable roster rebuild, the days are truly numbered.
The July 31 trade deadline looms large — we’re less than a week away — and though the market remains murky, with should-be buyers and might-be sellers still weighing their options, the rumors are rampant.
“Especially in today’s world, with the social media and everything, it’s unavoidable,” Verlander said.
So are the omnipresent scouts. And with several in attendance again Monday night, including one from the Chicago Cubs, Verlander joked he hasn’t felt like this “since college.” The 34-year-old ace, who tied Hal Newhouser for fifth place on Detroit’s all-time list with his 373rd career start, is one of a handful of Tigers on the block, but just what it’ll take to strike a deal isn’t clear.
Verlander holds some leverage with a no-trade clause. But much depends on how much of his remaining contract — upwards of $70 million the next two-plus seasons — the Tigers are willing to eat. And that’s a question only general manager Al Avila — or owner Chris Ilitch, frankly — can definitively answer at this point. The more they’re willing to keep, the more they can expect in return.
Surely, though, it helps that the old Verlander seems to have returned, as he showed again Monday, validating his own claim that he’d finally found the mechanical fix in his delivery he’d been searching for most of this season.
Verlander struck out five of the first seven batters he faced, using his full repertoire with command. He dismissed Whit Merrifield, the Royals’ leadoff hitter, on three pitches to start the game. Then Verlander struck out the side in the second, swinging strikeouts all. He yielded only an infield single the first time through the Kansas City order.
The second pass wasn’t quite as easy, as the Royals got to Verlander for a couple runs in the fourth inning, one scoring on a wild pitch and the other on a sacrifice fly. Jorge Bonifacio made it 3-0 in the sixth when he caught a hanging slider for a solo homer to left field.
But the Tigers rallied to tie it in the bottom of the sixth, the last two runs courtesy of a two-out, line-drive single from Alex Avila, another likely trade chip for the Tigers this week. (That clutch hit — off a lefty reliever, no less — is exactly why a team like the Cubs would want him.)
Verlander was back out for the seventh inning, and there was no hesitation from manager Brad Ausmus, even after a leadoff walk sent the pitch count well into triple digits. The bullpen was taxed after the series in Minnesota.
But the six-time All-Star responded by striking out Alcides Escobar on three pitches, then flashed some of that familiar fire we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. He fired three straight fastballs touching 96-97 mph and a nasty slider to get Alex Gordon. And then after a couple sharp curveballs to Merrifield, he put him away with a four-seamer that clocked 98 mph for the final out in the seventh.
That was Verlander’s 119th pitch of the night, tying his season high from April 27, and his final line was certainly trade-worthy: He went seven innings while allowing three earned runs on five hits and two walks with nine strikeouts. That’s a healthy 2.77 ERA over his last four starts for Verlander, who looks capable, at least, of repeating last season’s second-half dominance.
But will he get that chance in a Tigers uniform?
“I’m not gonna lie,” Alex Avila said. “I thought about that over the course of this game, that it might be the last time. That’s something you try not to think about it. But you’re human. So you do.”
The fans certainly did, too, and that’s why the crowd of 26,415 at Comerica Park gave Verlander a standing ovation as he left the mound in the seventh inning. It was more than the usual salute, and it didn’t fall on deaf ears, though it might’ve seemed like it as Verlander kept his head down all the way into the dugout.
Later, with a smile, he blamed that on his belief in “the baseball gods,” not wanting to jinx his team after they’d rallied to tie it. But he also sounded like he sort of regretted the decision.
“Maybe I wish I could’ve gone back and said, ‘Thank you,’ ” Verlander said. “But who knows? Maybe there’s a lot more of those to come. Maybe there’s not. All I know is that I heard it, I felt it, I appreciated it, and I love these fans.”
And if this was, in fact, a goodbye, well, that needed to be said.
“These fans have been nothing but stellar to me my entire career,” Verlander said. “And hopefully they can say the same about me.”