Justin Verlander stepped off the mound, and sprayed sunflower seeds out of his mouth as Geovany Soto rounded the bases after hitting a three-run homer in the third inning.
The sky was falling on the Detroit Tigers’ ace, and the look on his face showed the obvious frustration. His eyes seemed to be searching. Just what was going on here?
The Texas Rangers had just scored seven runs in the third inning en route to a 10-4 win on Thursday night, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland was coming to get him.
Verlander went 2 2/3 innings, giving up eight runs on six hits with two walks and three strikeouts.
It matched the most earned runs he’d given up in one start in the majors, and was his shortest outing since going two innings and allowing five runs on June 22, 2010 to the Mets in New York. The other eight-run game came on Aug. 26, 2006 at Cleveland against the Indians in the season he was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year.
“I’m not going to go home and pout about it,” Verlander told Ryan Field of FOX Sports Detroit. “I’m somebody who is going to figure it out, and figure it out in a hurry.”
Soto, who hadn’t hit a homer this season and was batting .167 before that blast, did not miss a 97 mph fastball up and over the middle of the plate.
Much had been made of Verlander’s velocity being down, but he cranked it up to 99 mph for the first time this season against Nelson Cruz just two batters before the Soto homer.
Verlander told reporters afterward that he’d been watching video and “tinkering” to find a solution for why his velocity was not approaching the usual 100 mph. But he said he told Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones afterward that he was “tinkering a little too much” and done with the video.
The 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner spoke of “creating repetition” in bullpen sessions before his next start and then “repeating” pitch execution “in the game.”
Verlander walked in a pair of runs with the bases loaded during the big inning, marking the third time he’d done that in his last two games.
He’s seen his earned run average spike from 1.55 to 3.17 in his last two outings. Verlander allowed only eight earned runs in his first seven starts, but 11 in the last two games. He gave up four runs (three earned) on six hits and five walks in five innings against the Cleveland Indians on Saturday.
“The whole game kind of carried over from the last start,” Verlander said. “Fastball control evaded me.”
Leyland was asked by Field about the questions two poor games might bring about Verlander.
“They can wonder,” Leyland said. “That’s understandable…But I’m not worried about him. The stuff’s there.”
Darin Downs, who relieved Verlander, added, “He’s one of the best pitchers in the game, but he’s also human.”
Being “human” doesn’t usually last long for Verlander.
Verlander has not given up more runs in consecutive games since April 17 and 22 in 2009, when he surrendered 12 at Seattle (five runs) and Anaheim against the Angels (seven runs). But he finished that season 19-9 with a 3.45 ERA.
The matchup of Yu Darvish and Verlander was expected to be a classic between perhaps the two best pitchers in the league.
And Verlander got a leg up on Darvish when the Tigers scored three times in the top of the third inning to give him a two-run lead. Don Kelly started the rally with a solo homer. Then Omar Infante and Andy Dirks singled before scoring on sacrifice flies by Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez.
“That should’ve been more than enough,” Verlander noted.
But the lead and the game vanished quickly.
Mitch Moreland’s two-out, two-run double broke a 3-3 tie. Verlander was ahead in the count, 0-2, and one strike away from leaving the inning with a tie score. But he hung a slider and Moreland crushed it.
“The pitch to Moreland was the killer,” Leyland said.
Four pitches later, Soto ended Verlander’s night.
Now it’s about closing the book on a bad chapter and rediscovering fastball command in upcoming bullpen sessions. And Verlander has solved problems many times before.
How did he do back in 2006 after that other game when he allowed eight runs? Well, Verlander threw seven shutout innings against the Angels in Detroit.