In a Big Spot, Justin Verlander Came Up Small

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I sometimes wonder why I even bother to write things here if the Tigers aren’t going to pay any attention to what I say. Everyone knew the situation last night. The bullpen was taxed beyond repair. They were in dire need of a day off.

Fortunately for Detroit, this was the same day that their ace, Justin Verlander, was to take the mound.

Now, we all know that Verlander is, at times, prone to obscenely high pitch counts, and that sometimes that limits his ability to work deep into games. But when you’re an ace, I’m told, certain things are expected of you, and one of those things is that you need to show the ability to bail out your club and give them deep outings every once in a while to help take the strain off the bullpen.

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All of this was well-chronicled right here on this very blog yesterday morning. If Verlander was unaware of his duties for the evening, he could have stopped in and read up. I mean seriously, this is a free website. Sheesh.

So instead of working crisply against the Yankees last night, Verlander came out throwing fastballs all over the place. Well, everywhere except into the strike zone, that is.

It took him 35 pitches to limp through the first inning. Right then, you just knew that this game was going to end badly for Detroit. That pitch count would have been much, much worse if not for a double-play ball to end the inning. Before that, he had thrown 34 pitches and recorded just one out.

He would settled down though, right? Maybe he was just too excited about his chance to show the Tigers and their fans how much he could carry his club when they needed him. Surely after that awful start, Verlander would go out and throw some ground balls in the second frame, maybe skate out of there with a manageable pitch count.

Wrong again. It took Verlander 29 pitches to make it through the second inning. It was as if he was channeling his inner Jose Valverde. All told, by the time he was lifted from the game, Verlander had thrown 116 pitches and worked just five innings. A bullpen without Ryan Perry, without Phil Coke, would have to finish the last four frames. Even at 3-1 Yankees, you just knew the Tigers were done.

I had said yesterday that you would know the Tigers were in trouble if Verlander had to throw 120 pitches in six innings. I short-changed him a bit. Had he come out for the sixth, he would have wound up with a much higher pitch count than that. Great job, JV. That was not the performance of an ace.

Sure, you could look at his line and see that he held the Yankees to only three runs and that he was down just two when he left the game. You could blame the bullpen for giving up the remaining three runs. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you look at it that way. The available arms in last night’s game were not of major league quality. When you are counting on a guy fresh up from AAA and a journeyman career minor leaguer to work extended innings and shut down one of the best offenses in baseball, you’ll come up short every time. Verlander knew that he was expected to pick up the slack last night, but his disastrous start prevented any chance of that happening.

And what the crap is going on with him in the first inning this year? It had always been a problem of Jeremy Bonderman to get knocked around in the first, only to settle in and pitch well thereafter. This year, Verlander has a 7.56 ERA in the first inning. Bonderman (and his 5.14 first inning ERA) has been teaching him well it seems.

Could it be a philosophical problem while warming up in the bullpen? Jeff Jones might need to switch up the regimen out there or something. In fact, the Tigers have a 5.45 ERA as a team in the first inning of games this year, which is the worst of any inning. No wonder they’ve had so many comeback wins; they’re always behind.

Whatever the problem is with Verlander and starting the ballgame, I sure hope Rick Knapp and company can fix it. You just cannot be a true ace (and therefore not worth $20 million per year) if you are constantly putting your club behind the eight ball, no matter how well you pitch once you finally manage to escape the first freaking inning.

Simply put, Verlander didn’t do what was expected of him last night, he didn’t do what his team needed him to do. And don’t give me that crap about the Yankees and their ability to foul off pitches and work the count. The way Verlander was missing so badly with his pitches early, the most free-swinging club in the big leagues would have waited him out.

On a night when his team absolutely needed a big time performance from their ace, Verlander didn’t get the job done.