DETROIT — It’s one of the oldest cliches in baseball.
When a good team has a bad stretch, you will hear it from the manager and all around the clubhouse — "this happens to every team. You have good runs and you have bad runs, and you just have to ride them out."
After going 9-19 since May 19, though, the Tigers have given up on that explanation. They know, whatever has happened to their season, it’s not just a normal bump in the road.
"I stopped saying that about a week ago," said Brad Ausmus. "Yes, teams go through rough patches and they have losing streaks, but this is something more. This has been going on for a month now."
The facts are clear — ever since that crazy day where a team dressed in orange-and-black Zubaz was stuck overnight in Boston, the Tigers have transformed into a team on pace to win 110 games to a team playing to the record of one with 110 losses.
Why? That’s the $64 million question. The offense hasn’t been spectacular, but they’ve still been above average in the 28-game stretch. That’s not a shocking development because, as good as Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera have been, it wasn’t likely that Ian Kinsler, Rajai Davis and Austin Jackson would keep up their hot starts.
The issue, then, is the pitching, and that’s what Ausmus can’t explain. The team ERA has been 5.73, which is not only well above the league average, it is more than a run higher than the worst team in the American League. Some of it can be attributed to the bullpen — according to WAR, Detroit’s is 15th out of 15 AL teams — but a big chunk of it has been the fault of the starting rotation.
Justin Verlander is having the worst stretch of his career as, for the first time, he has lost the stamina that made him baseball’s best late-inning and late-season starter. The only starting pitcher who could throw 100 mph in the ninth inning is now running out of gas in the sixth.
If Verlander is struggling, the Tigers could just turn to Max Scherzer. That’s what they did last week in Chicago, and he responded with the first complete-game shutout of his career. Tuesday, they tossed him the ball again, but the Royals weren’t going to play along. Scherzer gave up seven runs in the second inning — the worst inning of his career — and never got an out in the fifth.
That meant, with an 11-8 win on Monday and an 11-4 victory on Tuesday, the Royals had not only taken over first place in the American League Central, they had put up 22 runs against a pair of Cy Young Award winners — the same two players that are supposed to prevent streaks like this one.
"Those two guys are great players — we all know that — but they are only human," said Victor Martinez. "Everyone that plays major-league baseball is here because they can really play, and every pitcher is going to get beat. That’s how this game works."
With the exception of Anibal Sanchez, who is 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA since things started unraveling, the pitching problems have been across the board. Joe Nathan’s ERA is 13.50, and when Joba Chamberlain filled in as the closer, he gave up a walk-off homer to David Ortiz. Rick Porcello is 1-3 with a 6.00 ERA and Drew Smyly has the same record with a 4.67 ERA.
Teams go through rough patches and they have losing streaks, but this is something more.
That’s hard to explain for a team that, a month ago, was considered to have the best rotation in baseball, and two anchors at the back of the bullpen in Nathan and Chamberlain.
"I know these guys are better than this," Ausmus said. "They didn’t all suddenly forget how to pitch, and they didn’t all lose their stuff overnight. That’s not how baseball works. If there’s a magic spell that would fix all of this, I’d love to hear it, but until then, we have to figure out how to do it on our own."
All around the Tigers clubhouse, from Scherzer to Martinez to Alex Avila, players and pitchers gave the same message.
"I could have never imagined that we’d go through anything like this, and I haven’t exactly enjoyed doing it," Avila said. "We work hard to be prepared for every game, because we want to be consistent enough to avoid things like this, but right now, that isn’t working. It’s not magic, though. We show up tomorrow, and we work hard and we play hard and we try to beat the Royals. Then we do the same thing on Thursday and the day after that."
In the meantime, Ausmus and his players will continue to have a miserable summer.
"We’re all sick of this," he said. "I’m sick of it, the players are sick of it, and we know the fans are sick of it. We have got to start playing better, pitching better and getting key hits. That’s how we will turn this around."
ROSTER MOVE: With the bullpen beaten up after Verlander and Scherzer’s short outings, the Toledo Blade reported late Tuesday that Mud Hens reliever Chad Smith was being called up to Detroit. Smith has a 1.80 ERA in 22 relief outings split between Double-A Erie and Toledo, and will be in the majors for the first time.
The Tigers will have to make a pair of moves to make room for Smith, one to get him onto the 40-man roster and one to get him onto the 25-man roster. The former should be easy, as Luke Putkonen can be moved to the 60-day disabled list after his recent elbow surgery, but they have multiple options for the second move. Ian Krol hasn’t pitched since reporting shoulder stiffness on Saturday, while Evan Reed has a 7.71 ERA in 11 outings during Detroit’s slump.