DETROIT — Justin Verlander stomped off the mound Monday night, visibly livid about the seven runs he’d given up as the sixth inning ended. He pulled his glove up over his mouth and shouted words of disgust into the leather.
Verlander said it was "frustration," pure and simple, and added that his words at that moment "were not mother approved." And his mother, father, brother and Kate Upton were all at this game. He will need their support now because the cheering has turned to booing.
Asked if that bothered him, Verlander said, "No. The fans are frustrated and so am I. They’ve cheered me plenty … I’d boo myself today, too."
The loudest cheers came when Verlander was the American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 2011. But he hasn’t pitched like this since 2008, when he was 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA.
Verlander’s free-fall after a sharp first eight starts — when he was among the AL leaders with a 2.67 ERA — continued in an 11-8 loss to the Kansas City Royals, who are now just a half-game behind the first-place Tigers after winning eight straight.
His line for the night: six innings, season-high 12 hits, season-high seven earned runs, two walks, two strikeouts and zero intimidation.
Players used to check Detroit’s rotation when they came to town, praying the game’s best pitcher wasn’t in the series. Fans used to flock to games or make his starts must-see TV because of the chance he would toss his third no-hitter.
But now Verlander is 6-7 with a 4.98 ERA, and his numbers don’t lie.
In these last seven starts, Verlander is 2-5 with a 7.83 ERA, 1.85 WHIP and 26 strikeouts with 20 walks in 43 2/3 innings.
Asked if this stretch was more frustrating than what he encountered in ’08, Verlander said, "Yes, it is, 2008 was more up and down. This has been start-out-good, and now I have a string of bad outings in a row."
Verlander has tinkered with his delivery, sworn off tinkering and proclaimed that his stuff is plenty good to win. But the only thing that matters is that hitters are squaring up on him often enough to beat him easily.
The two big blows for the Royals were a three-run double by Billy Butler and a three-run homer by former Tigers teammate Omar Infante.
Butler chewed up Verlander even when he was going great. He’s now batting .434 against Verlander, and has more hits (33) and RBIs (14) against him than anybody.
However, All-Star left fielder Alex Gordon had been .200 against Verlander in 70 previous at-bats. He went 2-for-3 against him Monday.
The fans are frustrated and so am I. They’ve cheered me plenty…I’d boo myself today, too.
"No, he still looks good," Gordon insisted. "I think we just put together good at-bats. We’ve been swinging a lot better lately and the thing about our team right now is when we score, we’ve been having big innings. I don’t think it’s anything to do with Verlander, It’s just (we) played well tonight."
"I know what people are saying. He still looks good."
Verlander is only 31, and the Tigers need desperately for him to regain form. He’s making $20 million this year and will get $28 million every year from 2015 through 2019.
"Now he’s scuffling," said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, "and everybody says he’s done. I don’t think he’s done. … He certainly has the repertoire to pitch well into his 30’s. He’s still got the arm to pitch for quite a while. He’s got four quality pitches."
Verlander, despite being on pace for an eighth straight 200-inning season and having led the league in innings pitched three times over that stretch, said the workload hasn’t been the problem. He also said his stuff has not declined to the point where he needs to re-invent himself. Though, he did joke: "I’m going to go Luis Tiant and revamp my mechanics."
Luis Tiant threw with perhaps the strangest, knotted-up motion ever seen with his eyeballs to the sky during his delivery.
So, what’s wrong?
You can analyze Verlander’s declining velocity all you want and blame that for his problems. However, that’s not it. His velocity is down from 95 mph in 2011 to 92.6 mph this season, but it has actually been higher in the recent poor games than the earlier strong games.
So, what is it then?
"When you are not commanding the ball down in the zone," said Ausmus, "that’s when it gets hit. … When the ball gets up, it’s been getting hit."
Verlander said, "Being down in the zone — it feels forced right now."
So, he will watch video with pitching coach Jeff Jones and see if anything needs adjusting.
"You just don’t execute," Verlander said of his delivery. "Maybe there’s a little mechanical flaw in there."
He added, "I want to stop tinkering. But when you are not right, you have to."
Verlander made it look easy as recently as the 2013 playoffs — when he allowed one run in 23 innings. Now, pitching has become his Rubik’s Cube.
"Every pitcher has his ups and downs," Verlander said. "It’s a matter of how you come out of it. Sometimes, it’s not so easy to stay confident. But I’ve always been able to do so."
There was a look of concern in his eyes, but not a look of fear. There’s a big difference there, and it can end up making all the difference in the world for Verlander.