Verlander struggles, A-Rod hits 3,000th in Tiger loss
New York — The expectation was never that Justin Verlander would come back after missing more than two months and immediately show Cy Young form.
These first few starts, for all intents and purposes, are accelerated spring training starts. He's working out the kinks, kicking off the rust. Command and execution were bound to be spotty.
In that sense, Verlander's performance Friday against the Yankees, while disappointing, was not unexpected.
"It was my second big league start in eight months," said Verlander, who gave up three home runs in the Tigers 7-2 loss. "So I am still trying to find it a little bit."
He threw 117 pitches in 6-2/3 innings.
"Despite the fact that the numbers won't look as good, his stuff was much better," manager Brad Ausmus said. "I think we are moving in the right direction."
A far greater cause for concern for the Tigers, who have now lost three straight, dropped to one game over .500 and are sinking deeper in the A.L. Central, is the continuing sputter of their offense.
"The name of this game is pitching," said Victor Martinez, who singled in his first game back off the DL. "That's why you see no-hitters and perfect games. When any pitcher at this level throws the ball where they are supposed to throw it, you tip your cap. We hit mistakes. They are not perfect. When they make mistakes we have to hit it. We can't miss it."
They've been missing more often than not, scoring just six runs in the last 31 innings.
But back to Verlander — the first home run he served up made history.
In the first inning, Alex Rodriguez hit Verlander's first pitch, a 95-mph fastball, into the stands in right-center. It was his 3,000th hit and 667th home run.
"It's early in the game, so I wasn't really sure he'd be swinging or not," Verlander said. "In retrospect, I should have known he'd want to get 3,000 out of the way. … I never want to give up a hit and I never wanted to be part of history that way."
Verlander's frustration on the mound was clear. The ball traveled 373 feet. It would not have gone out of any other major league park. It would have landed on the warning track at Comerica.
"It's a pitch I know historically he likes," Verlander said. "It was outside on the black, but just a hair up. He knows, especially in this ballpark, you just need to put the barrel on it."
In the second, Verlander threw a 94 mph fastball to Didi Gregorius. He hit it much harder, into the Yankees bullpen.
The third homer, a two-run shot, came in the fifth. He hung a curveball to Brett Gardner.
It was just the fifth time Verlander has allowed three or more homers in a game.
"Rust is a good word for it," he said. "I can't quite execute in certain situations. Gregorius and Gardner are good examples of that."
But, there were positive signs. His fastball velocity stayed firm between 92 and 95 mph from beginning to end. His change-up, by the middle innings, was exceptional. His curveball went in and out. The only pitch he couldn't execute was his slider.
"After the layoff and the injury, he still looks better to me now than he did at any point in 2014," Ausmus said. "The life on his fastball is better, the curve is sharper and harder. The slider is the one pitch I suspect he will be working on."
In the fourth, he got broken-bat outs from Headley and Rodriguez. He was for most of the night effectively pitching to contact. He only posted two strikeouts, which might be the new normal for Verlander, who no longer lives in the upper-90s with his fastball.
He had some bad luck, too. In a two-run seventh, he gave up a one-out single to Gardner. Headley hit a ball back up the middle that had inning-ending double play written all over it — until it caromed off Verlander's leg.
Base hit, first and third. Gardner then scored on a wild pitch. Verlander got Rodriguez to ground out on his 117th pitch.
"I threw 117 pitches and I still felt strong," he said. "My body was a little fatigued, my back tightened up just from the effort level. But overall my body reacted better than I could have thought at this point.
"Now it's a matter of getting consistent."
Same for the offense.
Against a pitcher they beat earlier in the season, Adam Warren, the Tigers scored in one inning, the second. And even then, they left some food on the table.
A single by Martinez and a double by Yoenis Cespedes set the table for a big inning. After J.D. Martinez struck out and Nick Castellanos was hit by a pitch, Bryan Holaday delivered a two-run single.
There were still two runners on and one out. But Jose Iglesias struck out and Anthony Gose tapped out to first.
Warren proceeded to retire the next nine Tigers without much of a fuss.
"Are you trying to imply that they didn't compete?" asked Ausmus when he was asked if he liked the compete-level of his hitters in this game given the amount of quick outs. "You've got to be ready to hit. If you see a pitch you like you swing at it. Just because the result was a ground ball doesn't mean you are not competing."
The backbreaker came in the sixth. It was still a 4-2 game. Ian Kinsler led off with a single. Miguel Cabrera followed with a single to right. Kinsler went to third. The throw from right field got past Headley at third, but there isn't much room in foul territory.
Kinsler unwisely broke for home and Headley threw him out. With the heart of the order coming up, that was an inning-killer.
"If he could do it over, he would've stayed," Ausmus said.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda — there's been a lot of that going on lately.