When Justin Verlander recording a win counts as big news, it's safe to say things haven't gone according to plan.
Yet there was Verlander on Wednesday night, celebrating his first win in more than a month (since May 30, to be exact). It was a good night for the Detroit Tigers: Not only did they prevail 9-3 behind their struggling former ace, but they also swept the Oakland A's, owners of the best record in baseball.
The Tigers have now won three straight and eight of their last 10 and hold a 4.5-game lead over the upstart Kansas City Royals. With their sweep of Oakland, they look more and more like the team to beat in the American League.
Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler—the second baseman acquired from the Texas Rangers for Prince Fielder, who is out for the season after neck surgery—provide a fearsome middle of the order. Anibal Sanchez and surprising sinkerballer Rick Porcello provide a solid one-two punch atop the rotation, not to menton reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. Other contributors—such as Rajai Davis, who belted a dramatic walk-off grand slam Monday night—have stepped up as well.
Two years removed from their most recent World Series appearance, the Tigers look poised to claw their way back.
Will Verlander rebound in the second half?
"There's nothing I dislike about the team," manager Brad Ausmus said, per Matt Slovin of MLB.com.
Verlander might disagree. The big right-hander—who underwent offseason core-muscle surgery—is having easily his worst season as a professional; after allowing two runs in six innings against the A's Wednesday night, he lowered his ERA to a still-unsightly 4.71.
Across the board, Verlander's stats are down. Not coincidentally, so is his fastball. In fact, Verlander's velocity chart, per FanGraphs, looks like the Dow Jones Industrial Average at the dawn of the Great Recession.
This is a guy who once routinely touched triple digits and was famous for gaining gas in the late innings. Now, he's lucky if he survives to the late innings.
As with most pitchers who falter, Verlander has tried tweaking his mechanics. In fact, as he said after his long-awaited win, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com), the process of deconstructing his motion has taken its toll—to the point where Verlander is actually glad he won't be participating in the All-Star Game:
I'm not going this year—I can pretty much guarantee that. I didn't have a good first half, and I know that. It's going to be the first time I get that weekend off in a while. It will be nice to get that time where I don't have to tax my arm. I've put in a lot of extra work this year, trying to find my mechanics, so the rest will be good.
Assuming he doesn't get an invite to Minnesota (and that's a safe assumption), it'll be the first time Verlander will miss the Midsummer Classic since 2008.
Yet another sign that the once-unhittable stud has hit a serious skid.
Will his performance against the A's provide a springboard, not just for the Tigers but for Verlander personally?
Maybe, maybe not. It's tough to get too giddy about a night when Verlander surrendered two home runs in the first inning to leadoff hitter Coco Crisp and right-fielder Brandon Moss. In all, he allowed nine hits while striking out four and walking none.
Hardly dominant, but a step in the right direction.
Justin Verlander borrowing a page from Rick Porcello's playbook today, relying on movement more than velocity; FB between 89 and 92.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) July 2, 2014
"I didn't make a big adjustment, I just got more into my rhythm," Verlander told the AP.
As Verlander searches for his rhythm, it looks like the Tigers have found theirs. They'd love to get their ace back; they'd love for a Verlander win not to be big news.
In the meantime, as the summer gives way to fall, look for Detroit to stay in the headlines.