Wojo: Signs of hope fading as Tigers pitching struggles

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Perhaps this is how the beginning of the end looks, with a former ace getting booed off the mound, with frustration leading to ejection and dejection. Justin Verlander unraveled and so did the Tigers, and it's getting harder to picture them pulling it back together.

This was dreary and dispiriting, a 9-3 loss to the Orioles that felt fatal, if not in the literal sense. The buy-sell debate didn't officially get settled Sunday, but the number of buy-buy people now could fit comfortably in a mid-sized SUV. For the record, I'm giving up my seat behind the wheel but hanging onto the car keys, just in case.

This was the weekend the pitching could have pumped life into the Tigers' playoff hopes with the most-accomplished starters going. Instead, it was mostly a disaster. David Price was brilliant and lost. Anibal Sanchez was OK and won. Verlander was rocked again, just when there were glimmers he was figuring things out.

Verlander is the wild card, the guy who could alter the Tigers' fate by recapturing something. Instead, he's becoming their shattered symbol, further proof that nothing is like it was. As Verlander trudged off the mound, finally pulled by Brad Ausmus in the midst of a six-run fourth inning, the boos were nasty. The customers — 39,978 — aren't happy paying for past performance, and at present, Verlander is an aggravating mess (0-3, 6.62 ERA).

"I don't blame our fans for booing, I just simply think that cheering is more beneficial for us," Verlander said. "But hey, I wasn't happy with myself coming off the mound. Our fans pay a lot of money to support us, and they're allowed to voice their opinion."

The booing had to sting, but it also showed that fans still expect more, and they should. Owner Mike Ilitch, who turns 86 today, deserves more. GM Dave Dombrowski has less than two weeks before the trade deadline to chart a course, and is there evidence the Tigers have a stirring run in them?

Not really, although in the AL, it wouldn't take some incredible run to extend their playoff streak to five seasons. They're 101/2 games behind the Royals in the division and 41/2 out of a wild-card spot. That's why Dombrowski has to wait another week or so, after this four-game home series against the Mariners, before making the critical call.

Boiling over

It's easy to say the odds aren't insurmountable — and they aren't — but tougher to prove it by making bold moves. It won't be simple either way, with so many teams in contention, scrapping for the same pieces. The Tigers have some extenuating circumstances, including the absence of Miguel Cabrera, but there's no excuse for the poor starting pitching.

Outside of Price — a trade prize they could dangle, along with Yoenis Cespedes — the Tigers can count on very little. If Verlander can't rebound and flesh out the rotation, they have no chance, barring a huge acquisition that seems less likely by the day. Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene will pitch the first two games against Seattle, and that taunting, ticking clock is getting louder.

Signs of frustration are everywhere. Ian Kinsler disputed a strike call by plate umpire Manny Gonzalez in the third inning, then lofted a fly ball on the next pitch. He took a couple steps toward first and slammed his bat to the ground and broke it. Then he flung the handle toward the plate, and was ejected immediately. Kinsler said afterward he wasn't throwing the bat at the ump, but that frustration flared.

It's flared a lot lately, including by Verlander in that fateful fourth inning. With the bases loaded, J.J. Hardy checked his swing on a 2-2 pitch, a 50-50 call that went against Verlander. On the ensuing pitch, Hardy ripped a 97-mph fastball to right field for a two-run double, and the blowup was underway.

"We need (Verlander) to pitch better than he did, no question," Ausmus said. "I see signs of the Justin Verlander that got outs and swings and misses, and then he has a bad inning. I certainly think he's capable of pitching well. At this point, it's not just him, we all gotta do it, everyone, pitchers, hitters, everyone."

Clock is ticking

This series was especially crucial, and not just because the Tigers lost three crushers to the Twins before the break. Verlander was coming off the best of his six starts, going 72/3 strong innings before the Tigers fell apart in an 8-6 loss to the Twins.

Just as in his previous start against the Blue Jays — four solid innings, followed by six runs in the fifth — Verlander couldn't sustain it. He has struggled horribly going from the wind-up to the stretch with runners on base, when he can't slow the pace. It might seem fixable, but the glitch was there again Sunday.

"We need to play better, better starting pitching, and I need to do a better job," Verlander said. "A lot of guys need to do a better job. It starts with looking in the mirror, with myself."

The Tigers are 45-46, below .500 after the All-Star break for the first time since 2010. Their four-year reign atop the Central Division appears over, and management's buy-or-sell decision is in the players' hands for only a few more games.

"I would definitely say I'm surprised, I think this entire team is surprised — we expect to play better baseball," Verlander said.

"But at the same time, with the talent in this room, it allows us the opportunity to say, OK, this isn't over, we're not gonna fold up shop and move on to next year."

If the Tigers keep playing like this, they won't have a say in the matter. Imagery during the game was stark, on the field and off. Thick smoke from a multiple-car fire could be seen beyond the Comerica Park scoreboard (fire sale?), and by the end, dark clouds moved in and light rain began to fall. If that's not a lasting image, the Tigers are running out of time to create a better one.