Diminished Verlander, bullpen leave Tigers in 0-2 hole to Orioles
BALTIMORE — The sound engineers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards blew the dust off of their Jock Jams CD early during Friday afternoon's ALDS Game 2. It was only the top of the sixth, and the Orioles were losing at the time, 5-3, after a five-run Tigers onslaught in the top of the fourth. But still the ballpark's volume knobs were turned way up, and the orange masses sang along to a victor's tune: "Nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey-hey, goodbye."
The serenade was for starter Justin Verlander and the opening of the doors to a Tigers bullpen that seems to possess seven swords of Damocles, each threatening to fall and impale Detroit’s chances as any moment. It had happened on Thursday night, when an eight-run Orioles eighth led to an easy 1-0 series lead for Baltimore. And as everyone predicted, it happened again on Friday.
Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria, who had contributed to the previous night's collapse, this time allowed four Orioles to cross the plate in the bottom of the eighth. Three of those runs came on a first-pitch, bases-clearing double by the pinch-hitting Delmon Young. By the time Zach Britton closed out a 7-6 win to give Baltimore a 2-0 series lead, the Orioles' fans had long since bid the Tigers farewell.
Chamberlain and Soria bore much of the blame, and their postseason ERAs, through two games, now stand at 108.00 and 45.00, respectively. "He’s a fastball hitter," Soria said of Young. "He swings at the first pitch. I threw a slider. And he was on it."
Verlander, though, also came up short. It wasn't long ago that he seemed capable of throwing a perfect game each and every time he took the mound. He never did, though he threw two no-hitters, and that was partly because he didn’t have to be technically perfect to get the job done. His genius was in his ability to pitch to the moment, in part to be sure that he'd have enough in reserve to last as long as the Tigers needed him. He would sit comfortably in the mid-90s, and save the wipeout stuff — and he threw pitches in excess of 101 mph in each year between 2009 and 2012 — for the rare moments when things looked dire.
At 31, though, Verlander does not have that type of stuff anymore. At least, he didn't have it this season, during which his fastball averaged a pedestrian 93 and he never once delivered a pitch faster than 98. He looks identical physically, and throws with the same whipping motion, but what comes out of his hand is different. Now he must massage each at-bat, and he can't usually blow anyone away when he needs to. Often, in 2014, it hasn't worked, as his ERA was 4.54 and his strikeout rate plummeted to a recently unimaginable 6.9 per nine.
So the Tigers couldn't have expected anything approaching perfection from Verlander, and he couldn't have either, even if he had finished the regular season with a pair of seven-plus inning, one-run outings. "It's nice to have pitched well, but I can't say that has a huge effect on my confidence coming into the postseason," he had said on Thursday. That was not to suggest that he lacked confidence, but perhaps to serve as a reminder that two good starts didn't change the underlying components of the new Verlander.
Even so, what the Tigers were really hoping for was efficiency from their former ace. They needed him to find a way to work deep into the game, which was once a given for him. With his continually diminished stuff, though, he simply couldn't find a way to put the Orioles' relentless hitters away expediently enough to last. After needing 27 pitches to complete the first two innings, he doubled his pitch count in the third, with one of those offerings turned into a two-run homer by Nick Markakis. By the end of the fifth, he was up to 95 pitches, and in the dugout, his manager Brad Ausmus would reveal, he said he was running low.
After a six-pitch sequence to Nelson Cruz in the bottom of the sixth that ended in a single, Verlander was done, and it was Jock Jams time. Sure, there was Anibal Sanchez — the starter who returned to the roster in late September after a strained pectoral muscle had sidelined him for a month and a half — to stave off the inevitable for a while, and he did, working two perfect innings. But he also threw 30 pitches, and given his recent health woes, the Tigers felt he couldn't go any longer. "We thought 35 was pushing it," Ausmus said. It seemed only a matter of time, then, until the sword would fall.
"For the most part, I thought I kept those guys off the board and gave us a chance to win," Verlander said. "Obviously, I would have liked to go deeper in the game."
The Tigers, in fact, needed him to do just that, but he simply couldn't — not for lack of trying or of experience, but because of a fundamental diminution of his once-great abilities. And because of that, the Tigers' season is one game from ending.