All of the pitching luxuries the Detroit Tigers seemed to have four weeks ago have systematically evaporated and been replaced by the first stages of panic.
When the Tigers maneuvered a trade for David Price at the non-waiver deadline, they were quickly anointed American League Central champions, champions of the league by some and champions of everything by a few others. The expectations for a team with the game’s most prolific hitter and three former Cy Young Award winners in its rotation were too high to measure.
Then, they came crashing down as the calendar did away with August and the Kansas City Royals did away with Detroit’s lead in the AL Central division.
Now, the Tigers are happy to get anything in the realm of positive as they chase the once-buried Royals and a wild-card berth. Justin Verlander’s start Friday night against the Chicago White Sox qualifies as positive, and if the Tigers are going to live up to any expectations created for the coming October, they will surely need more of this from their former-ace-turned-middle-man.
Verlander turned in seven innings and struck out eight, and despite giving up nine hits, he surprisingly allowed only a single run Friday night. It was a flashback to the Verlander of 2012—the 2011 Verlander was on another planet and probably would have made the entire White Sox lineup disappear with some sort of ray gun.
justin is verlandering tonight. #tigers.— gregg krupa (@greggkrupa) August 30, 2014
The Tigers are desperate for those kinds of outings from any starting pitcher right now.
With Anibal Sanchez hitting the disabled list on Aug. 9 and probably out for the season with a pectoral muscle strain, Verlander missing a start a week later because of shoulder inflammation and David Price alternating between front-line starter and mediocre/terrible, the Tigers are in need of someone to step up and provide life to the rotation.
Rick Porcello has provided a boost with a 2.11 ERA over his last seven games—one of those was an extra-inning relief appearance—but the Tigers clearly need more, or else they wouldn’t be staring up at the Royals.
Add that to the fact that the Tigers offense went into a slump earlier this month and Miguel Cabrera has one home run and nine RBI since July 26 and the pitching becomes even more important.
And because the bullpen is a serious source of worry—its 4.41 ERA this season is the third-worst in the league, per FanGraphs—it will have to be the starting pitcher, once seen as the best in baseball, to carry this team into October.
As much has Verlander has struggled he's had 13 starts of 7 innings or more. That's a huge value to a team with no bullpen.— Shawn (@DetTigerTalk) August 30, 2014
Verlander’s first start back after missing one because of the shoulder discomfort was not comforting. He went 5.2 innings and gave up four runs. He got the win, pushing his record to 11-11 but raised his ERA up to 4.82 as he continued to stare at his worst season since 2008. Concern reigned all around him and the Tigers.
But in Verlander’s best years, he has had an ability to find a supercharge when he needs it most, whether it was a 101 mph fastball in the eighth inning for a key strikeout or a 130-pitch shutout.
Friday’s outing was in that mold. Another bad start by Verlander and full-on panic might have been setting in in Motown. But after a shaky 23-pitch first inning, Verlander didn’t allow a run, struck out seven and didn’t walk another batter as his fastball lived in the 93-95 mph range.
Once he came out of the game, the bullpen, which has been so maligned all season and in recent games as well, pitched two scoreless innings to make it 15 in a row without allowing a run for that group.
Suddenly, the Tigers are a half-game back of the Royals, and Verlander is providing hope rather than uneasiness, which is exactly what the Tigers need as they try to rebound from a team in distress to one on the attack.
When Verlander was at his best in 2011 and 2012, he was maybe the best in baseball. Expecting a 31-year-old arm with nearly 2,000 major league innings on it to regain that form is unrealistic. The Tigers don’t need that Verlander anyway.
They need him to be rejuvenated from what he has been since May, which is an average starter with average command. Maybe that one-start break will give Verlander that jump-start.
If it does, that is all the Tigers will need to win the Central division and again be a legitimate threat in October.
Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News and four years before that as the Milwaukee Brewers beat writer for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.