Laborious start for Verlander sinks Tigers

Laborious start for Verlander sinks Tigers

NEW YORK -- These are usually the games where Justin Verlander shines. He had a showdown opposite CC Sabathia, a Tuesday night crowd of 46,906 at Yankee Stadium, and a Tigers squad behind him looking to turn a three-game winning streak into something closer to a mid-August tear.

Instead, the notable part of his night came in a rather self-critical postgame interview. If not for an Austin Jackson home run, it might've been the notable part altogether of the Tigers' 6-2 loss.

This is the spotlight game, and it tracked Verlander trying to make an adjustment to no avail. And afterward, it caught the frustration in Verlander's tone as he described the feeling of a big game squandered.

"This," Verlander said, "is the worst I've ever felt on the mound as a professional baseball player, bar none. I feel like I was so far from where I needed to be."

His manager didn't say that, nothing close. But he might not have challenged it.

"He just didn't have a good game tonight," Jim Leyland said, summarizing his ace's outing.

The fact that he didn't, or that he didn't have a very long game at all, is a symbol of the puzzle with Verlander this season in his follow-up to his spectacular 2009 season.

Plenty of statistics could quantify the difference between Sabathia and Verlander on Tuesday, but one in particular might sum it up best: Verlander needed 114 pitches to last five innings. Sabathia needed only one more pitch than Verlander to get through seven.

It's a point Leyland has made with Verlander and Max Scherzer in recent days, that he needs the same pitch count to last at least one more inning and save the bullpen. This was the lesson in action.

It isn't as if Verlander doesn't already know he needs to get deeper into games. He doesn't aim for a 35-pitch first inning, which he had Tuesday, or 63 pitches through the second. He has shown stretches this season, even after brutal opening innings, when he can rack up quick outs and survive to see the seventh or eighth inning. He also had a game in April when he needed 125 pitches to last five innings against the Angels, and said afterward he didn't deserve the win that he got from it.

Verlander kept the Tigers close after the early damage he allowed, but he couldn't keep them close long enough. He just couldn't make the adjustment, or just couldn't find the adjustment to make.

"Sometimes you can make little adjustments here and there, but these were massive adjustments that I needed to make," Verlander said. "And I don't know where it came from. I don't know where these bad habits came from today. All I know is that they need to be fixed and in a hurry.

"I can't pitch that way. There's no excuse for that."

With a taxed bullpen and a stingy opponent in Sabathia, the Tigers needed not only a quality performance from Verlander, but a deep one. They had some momentum from the game's first pitch, which Jackson drove out to left for his second home run of the year, but soon lost it in the bottom of the inning.

While Verlander entered Tuesday with a 3.72 ERA, his first-inning ERA stood at 7.12. It jumped to 7.56 by the time he induced an inning-ending double play from former teammate Marcus Thames to escape a bases-loaded jam with his 35th pitch of the inning. In between, he walked three of New York's first six batters and reached two other three-ball counts, including a 3-1 count to Nick Swisher before he laced a line drive to left field scoring Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter.

"He's no fun to face," Jeter said. "We took advantage, early on it looked like he struggled with his control, but he's as tough as anyone in baseball."

Said Verlander: "I was missing with everything. Nothing was good. None of my pitches were any good tonight. Wasn't throwing them for strikes. And when I did throw them for strikes, they were right down the middle. Obviously that's not going to work out for anybody at this level."

If it was a middle inning that had such an uncharacteristically high ERA for Verlander, maybe it could be explained away as a statistical anomaly. When it's the first, though, the question of pregame routine automatically comes up.

Verlander has made some tweaks to try to see what happens. This time, though, he said he felt good warming up in the bullpen.

"Everything was going well. Even in the bullpen today, everything felt good," Verlander said. "Go out there for the first inning and it's just all over the place, man. I couldn't throw it down the middle when I was trying."

Verlander has had plenty of high pitch counts after an inning, and his fair share of high scores. Once it's over, though, he usually settles into a pitch-efficiency mode and rattles off some quick inning to allow the Tigers a chance to get back into a game. After Sabathia retired the Tigers in order in the second, though, Verlander left a 2-1 fastball up to Granderson, who belted it to right for his 12th homer of the year.

Another single and another walk followed before Verlander retired Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano consecutively to escape.

Verlander (13-8) retired 11 of the final 14 batters he faced, but still didn't feel comfortable. He tried to make his case to stay in for the sixth inning, but Leyland wouldn't have it. And the lesson he has been preaching was right there in practice.

"If you want to pitch more innings, you have to do it in fewer pitches," Leyland said. "I understood and I would've loved to put him back out there, but I've said it before: I'm not going to have that on my watch."

Verlander allowed three runs on five hits with five walks and five strikeouts in his shortest outing since June 22. Jeter's sixth-inning sacrifice fly and Cano's seventh-inning solo homer extended New York's lead off Daniel Schlereth.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.