Justin Verlander is supposed to be the foundation of the Detroit Tigers.
For the last few years, and especially in Detroit's back-to-back division championships, Verlander was the solution to every one of Jim Leyland's problems. Offense not having a good day? Verlander would make a run or two stand up. A losing streak starting to build up? JV was never better than he was after a Tigers loss. Bullpen beaten up? The ace was always going to give you at least seven innings.
This season, though, Verlander hasn't been that automatic solution. After the best April of his career and a near no-hitter in early May, he has probably been the worst starter in Detroit's loaded rotation. In his last 15 starts, he's 6-6 with a 5.22 ERA - numbers that a contenting team would hate to see from a No. 5 starter, much less their ace.
Despite a rough first half, Jim Leyland took Verlander to the All-Star Game. If the move was designed to remind him that he belonged in that company, it backfired badly. After getting lit up for seven runs by the White Sox on Thursday afternoon, Verlander is now 0-2 with a 9.26 ERA in his two outings since the break, and he has given up at least five runs in three of his last four starts.
That means that, from being the answer to Detroit's problems, Verlander is quickly becoming one of them himself. He doesn't appear to be hurt -- he hit 99 mph with his fastball in the fourth inning -- but his stamina has dropped off drastically. A pitcher who's trademark used to be throwing triple-digit fastballs in the eighth and ninth is now going from 99 in the fourth to 93 and 94 just two innings later.
No one thinks Verlander is suddenly a below-average starter, but there's something obviously wrong and no easy way to fix it. Leyland has talked many times about how hard it is to fix a player's issues at the major-league level, but what choices do the Tigers have? They aren't about to send Verlander to Toledo, and it is hard to imagine him pitching long relief to get things worked out.
Verlander, though, hopes that a big part of the problem might already be fixed after a bullpen session earlier this week with pitching coach Jeff Jones.
"Jeff and I found something the other day in my mechanics, and it immediately made things feel crisper," he said. "I told Jeff that, if I made the change, I was probably going to be erratic for a start or two, and that's what happened today. My stuff was as good as it has been all year, but there were times where I struggled with it."
Verlander knows that his teammates are the only reason he has been able to spend more than two months fighting his mechanics without the Tigers falling out of the pennant race.
"If you look at what Max is doing, and how well Anibal, Doug and Rick are throwing the ball, it has given me a chance to work on these things without putting the team in too big a hole," he said. "That's been huge."
Leyland agreed that while Verlander made his share of mistakes Thursday, it wasn't nearly as bad as the final numbers looked.
"I thought he actually threw the ball pretty well," he said. "Early on, they got a couple cheap hits off him, and then when he did make some bad pitches, he made them in bunches. That really cost him."
Verlander's problems topped off a bad day for the Tigers, as Miguel Cabrera missed his third straight game with a strained hip flexor -- just the second time in his Tigers career that he has sat out three in a row -- and Torii Hunter left the game in the eighth inning with a sore left Achilles' tendon. Add in the Biogenesis investigation that is looming over Jhonny Peralta, and four of Detroit's six All-Stars are suddenly under some kind of cloud.
Hunter, though, isn't worried about anything other than his clothing choices.
"I'll be in there tomorrow," Hunter said. "I had some new dress shoes on before the game, so I'm going to have to sell them or give them away. It was sore, and then I took a bad step after swinging at a pitch and jammed it a little. I could have stayed in the game, but Skip said no."
The update on Cabrera wasn't quite as positive. Leyland said that his third baseman felt better on Thursday, but not well enough to play. He hopes to have Cabrera in the lineup on Friday against the Phillies, but "I'm not going to do anything stupid with him."