As recently as a few weeks ago, the story of the Tigers' second-half collapse was a starting rotation that wasn't giving the offense a chance to stay in the game into the later innings and wasn't giving the bullpen many days to take a deep breath. And manager Jim Leyland was admitting that his starters would have to put together a string of solid outings if the Tigers were going to get on a roll.
Now, entering the season's final four weeks, the Tigers still haven't found their rhythm as a team. At 2 1/2 games out of the American League Wild Card entering Tuesday, six games back of Cleveland in the AL Central, the need for a hot streak becomes all the more urgent. Yet the strongest sign of life for the Tigers down the stretch is that their starting pitchers are pitching them into games.
They didn't have many starters left. In fact, until Kenny Rogers and Chad Durbin were added for the upcoming series against the White Sox, Detroit had the makings of a three-man rotation following Jair Jurrjens' injury and Andrew Miller's demotion. But the ones that endured most of the season -- Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson -- appear capable of the final kick that they didn't have last September.
"We know that we go out there and set a tone," said Robertson, whose six innings with two runs allowed Sunday at Oakland helped build a 7-2 lead into the late innings before the Tigers lost. "We have to be the ones that set the tone and give our offense a chance to put some runs up on the board."
Leyland doesn't want the rotation to have to feel that level of pressure, especially the 24-year-old Verlander and Bonderman. Part of their struggles this summer, club officials believe, stemmed from trying to do too much. If they feel like they have to do it all themselves, their chances of doing enough drop.
Yet as Leyland himself has said all year, momentum is only as good as the next day's pitcher. And that's the conundrum for Detroit, needing its young starters without making them feel like they're overly needed.
Their last turn through the rotation, they at least provided a chance. Despite Miller's first-inning exit Wednesday at Kansas City and a four-inning spot start from rookie Virgil Vasquez on Friday at Oakland, the Tigers received a combined total of 19 2/3 innings with four runs allowed from Bonderman, Verlander and Robertson.
Not since mid-April had all three of them tossed quality starts in the same turn through the rotation. They've been stingy at various points during the summer, but never at the same time. The net result was an inconsistent rotation that struggled around the same time, posting an ERA around 7.00 over a month-long stretch from late July into last homestand.
This time around, they were both effective and efficient, working their way through at least six full innings before letting Detroit's rekindled bullpen handle the rest. Those quality starts accounted for both of Detroit's wins on last week's six-game road trip and another game it should have won. The Tigers led for 24 out of 28 innings in those games, and none in their other losses.
|"We have to be the ones that set the tone and give our offense a chance to put some runs up on the board."|
|-- Nate Robertson|
"I don't want to put any added pressure on myself or Jeremy or anybody," Verlander said Saturday. "But at the same time, I don't mind being the guy to go out there and be the guy the team looks to to get a stop or get a win."
Verlander seemingly would have the best chance. His mechanical adjustment to get more drive off of the mound as he delivers to the plate has yielded immediate results following a series of inconsistent starts and inflated pitch counts. After throwing seven scoreless innings in a 16-0 rout of the Yankees last Monday, he put up zeroes in a tighter situation, striking out 10 Athletics over 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball while his offense wore down All-Star starter Dan Haren for a 5-1 Tigers win Saturday, their lone win of the series.
Before these last two outings, Verlander admitted he'd like to be seen as a leader on the staff, but it was a matter of consistency providing strong outings. Back-to-back starts isn't exactly a pattern, but it's more than the Tigers have had in a while.
"He's learning. He's making progress," Leyland said. "He's a great young pitcher, but that doesn't mean you're home free yet."
Bonderman's seven innings of one-run ball last Thursday were more than enough for his first victory since July 13, when he beat the Mariners back home in Washington. He had taken six losses in eight starts in between, and the other two outings were no-decisions that ended up as Tigers victories.
That stretch was apparently enough for even his wife to tell him that he didn't look the same on the mound. He was taking the team's fortunes to the mound with him. Now, the Tigers simply want him pitching without worrying about the role.
"The horse doesn't worry about the team," Bonderman said. "He goes out there and does his job. If you don't do the job, you are not carrying the team."
Sunday's blown lead left Robertson winless in his last four starts and 1-5 over his last nine. Two of his last three outings, however, have been relative gems that went unrewarded -- first trading zeroes with Cleveland's Jake Westbrook for 8 2/3 innings, then holding his aforementioned lead against the A's on Sunday.
"That's why we're a team," Robertson said. "Regardless of me getting the win, when you win the ballgame, whether I pitch good or bad, you feel good about it. We celebrate together, and we lose together. But we do it together."
At the moment, it's as if Verlander, Bonderman and Robertson are pitching together, too. It's uncertain how much Detroit will get out of the other two spots in the rotation down the stretch. Kenny Rogers makes his first start in over a month Wednesday, but neither Leyland nor Rogers know how he'll perform or how his elbow will feel. Chad Durbin will start Thursday, but it's unclear whether he'll stay in the rotation after that. Miller and Jurrjens are expected to finish out the season in long relief, but Leyland couldn't eliminate the chance that Jurrjens might make one more spot start down the stretch.
Thus, the young but maturing hurlers that formed the core of the rotation last year will carry most of the starts during his critical run. Whether they have to shoulder the burden or not, whatever momentum the Tigers have likely starts with them.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.