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Pitching will determine Tigers’ fate

06/12/2014, 12:17am EDT
By DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Pitching will determine Tigers’ fate

Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander's turnaround is key to Tigers success. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Pittsburgh Pirates finally called Gregory Polanco up from Triple-A Indianapolis, 31,000-plus showed up on a Tuesday night at PNC Park, and pundits began speculating about one of baseball’s all-time outfields.

It’s true that if Starling Marte has safely snapped out of an 0-for-23 batting skid that led to a recent four-game benching, the outfield of Marte in left, reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen in center, and phenom Polanco in right could prove to be something very special in both the short term and over time.

Maybe even Jim Rice-Fred Lynn-Dwight Evans special, for the old-timers among us.

McCutchen may be a Bucco for life, and Marte got a six-year, $31 million deal this past spring, so this crew should be together for quite a spell.

But they won’t necessarily flip a switch and turn the sub-.500 Pirates into contenders, a trendy thought after the team snapped a two-decade playoff absence last season.

That was the result of pitching, much of it produced by a batch of fragile projects who responded with career-type seasons and by a bullpen that was freakily untouchable. To have expected a repeat on all counts this season was something of a pipe dream by Pirates fans.

OK, enough about that. It is merely an introduction to this email from a reader who I’m guessing is a Cleveland Indians fan.

“You wrote a story a while back about the Tigers being on the brink of greatness. How have they been doing since then, you clown?”

Not so well. That column was written after Detroit swept the Red Sox in Boston and ran their road winning streak to 11 games. The Tigers were 27-12 and owned the best winning percentage in the major leagues.

Entering a game Wednesday night in Chicago, the Tigers had gone 6-15 since that clown all but conceded the World Series to them.

Like the Pirates, and like every team in baseball, it always comes down to pitching, and Detroit’s bullpen is suddenly in disarray, and its closer is in question.

But the biggest spotlight remains on Justin Verlander, who took a 6-5 record and a bloated 4.19 earned run average into Wednesday’s start against the White Sox.

Just how seriously have his skills diminished?

During his Cy Young/​MVP season of 2011, Verlander was 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA. He was 17-8 a year later with a 2.64 ERA. During those two seasons, he struck out a staggering 489 batters while walking just 117.

He is 19-17 since, his strikeouts and velocity are down, the walks are up. He has three starts this season in which he has walked more batters than he has struck out. That happened just four times in the previous five years.

The trends are indeed disturbing, as was the recent suggestion by a national baseball columnist that the once-dominant workhorse ace is now little better than a No. 3 starter. After all, once that radar gun starts sliding it is hard to reverse the drift.

On top of that, statisticians will tell you he is throwing fewer fastballs while down in the count and is often getting pounded in those situations. Batters are patiently taking many of the same pitches they used to flail at out of the strike zone.

Of course, Verlander went through a similar stretch, albeit not quite as pressing, last season and emerged as the ace of old with the same old velocity. In his last five starts of 2013, three of them coming during the postseason, he allowed one run in 35 innings with 52 strikeouts against seven walks.

So time will tell if and how he snaps back in 2014.

The Tigers have not been playing well because they have not been pitching well.

It seems unlikely that will continue, even if Verlander continues to be up and down, considering the arms in the deep rotation combined with the run-scoring potential of the every-day lineup.

Maybe the Indians can hang in there as they did last season and pressure the Tigers to the end. But in reality, the AL Central is soft, and the cream should rise to the top.

Of course, it’s always about the pitching. Any clown can tell you that.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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