Wojo: Tigers bombed by Tribe, dreary against top teams

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — In one disastrous weekend, the Tigers got crushed and their credibility got smeared. They thought they could compete with anyone, and instead were reintroduced to a sobering reality.

They can’t beat the Indians. They don’t regularly beat any good teams. They looked nothing like a contender in this three-game thumping, and their pitching deficit was thoroughly exposed.

The first-place Indians dominated the Tigers every way possible, wrapped by a 9-3 pounding Sunday. The domination that truly matters is in the starting rotation, and the gap between the Tigers and everyone else remains daunting. Not even their most-dependable starter could stem it, as Justin Verlander was battered beyond belief, allowing four home runs in the fifth inning.

For the Tigers, this was awful and revealing, and big crowds packed Comerica Park to witness it. The Indians have beaten the Tigers nine straight times and won nine straight overall, and lead the Royals by five games and the Tigers (38-38) by seven.

Numbers don’t lie

This isn’t fluky now, it’s flat-out factual. The Indians have outscored the Tigers by a staggering 60-20 margin. Their pitching is the best in the AL with a 3.51 ERA, while the Tigers are 13th at 4.60. It doesn’t matter how potent your lineup is, or should be, you can’t make up a full run every game all season. There’s no strategic debate here, not much to figure it out. Should Brad Ausmus have left Verlander in to allow a fourth bomb in one inning? Probably not, but the bullpen has been so strapped, every out by a starter is cherished.

Verlander called his outing “horrible,” and after Mike Napoli’s two-run shot in the middle of the homer binge, Verlander angrily bounced a ball off the mound.

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“That one inning, I kind of fell apart,” he said. “It really (stinks) because I worked my tail off the last couple months to get back where I wanted to be, and to have one start blow up in your face really (stinks).”

It particularly stinks for the Tigers because their rotation is tragically unreliable outside of Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann, and both were pummeled by the Indians. Rookie Michael Fulmer has been excellent but is on an innings limit. Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey take turns blowing their chances.

Meanwhile the Indians, with another strong effort by Josh Tomlin (9-1), are riding an incredible streak, their starters posting a 1.78 ERA the past nine outings, with three complete games. That’s where it always begins in baseball, and that’s where it’ll end for the Tigers if they don’t fix their starters, or find others.

You can’t say it’s already over for the Tigers — although that’s certainly the temptation — because it’s still June. But we’re way past a small sample size. The 0-9 record versus the Indians is ridiculous enough, but there are other goofy numbers. Against the top seven teams in the AL — Cleveland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Toronto, Texas, Boston and Houston — Detroit is a puny 6-23. The Tigers’ only winning record is 2-1 against the Blue Jays, and they haven’t faced the Red Sox yet.

The Indians’ three starters in the series — Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — overpowered and baffled the Tigers’ hitters, which is how you win nine straight.

“Well, they own us so far,” Ausmus said. "There’s still a lot of time to go.”

Streaky ballclub

Ausmus and his players didn’t have much more to say, and I’m not sure what they can say. Ausmus brushed aside questions about the Tigers’ lack of urgency in such a big series, and wouldn’t say if he spoke to the team during a long postgame delay before the media entered the clubhouse.

Obviously, a team looks listless when the opposing pitcher is blitzing through the order, as Carrasco did in the Indians’ 6-0 romp Saturday. The Tigers came into the weekend after a four-game sweep of the Mariners, and immediately returned to their troubling template. We wonder why they’re so streaky, but it’s really not that much of a puzzle. Erratic starting pitching makes it virtually impossible to sustain success, and tougher to stop a slide.

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So should we accept this is what the Tigers are, middling and mediocre, stuck at Credibility Corner, where contenders and pretenders mingle? Do you just admit the Indians’ pitching is far superior, and even if they stumble, the Royals are hovering right there?

It’s silly to accept your fate before the midway point of a season, and the Tigers have enough hitting stars to keep it interesting. But at some point, you are what you are, unless you prove you aren’t.

“I think we’re better than a .500 club,” Verlander said. “We’ve shown flashes of it, and shown flashes of not being very good. But I believe we’re better than this. … It’s kind of too early to press the panic button. Go back two years ago and it was the exact opposite (against the Indians). Sometimes teams just have the other team’s number, but that can change very quickly.”

Everything changes very quickly for these Tigers, from bad to good and back to bad. This time they were horrible, battered again by a contender, a brutal pattern they’ve shown no signs of breaking.