By: Will Burchfield
“No,” said Justin Verlander, “and yes.”
No, he wasn’t aware that Wednesday’s masterpiece was his first start of the season longer than seven innings.
Yes, this fact surprised him.
Prior to 2017, Verlander had never gone more than eight starts into a season without achieving a performance of seven-plus innings. Wednesday night marked his 23rd start of the season.
“First time, really?” said Brad Ausmus, his eyebrows raised. “I guess it would surprise me, then.”
Heck, man, it’s August.
If only it were April. Or May. Or even June. Because the Tigers are finally following their recipe for success, a recipe they laid out more than 100 games ago.
It calls for a lot of Verlander and a lot of Jordan Zimmermann. It calls for both of them, together.
It calls for a heavy dose of Michael Fulmer, too, but he’s been present from the get-go. It was the high-priced vets who were mysteriously absent.
Verlander has stormed through the door the past month. In his last seven starts, he has a 1.91 ERA. Since making a mechanical adjustment prior to the All-Star break, he’s looked more and more like the Verlander of old, both to others and to himself.
“I look at my stuff right now and it’s as good as it was last year, as good as it’s been in years,” he said on Wednesday night.
He had just tossed eight innings of one-hit ball versus the Pirates in a 10-0 Tigers’ win. It looked so easy for him, so routine, it’s easy to understand why the team was banking on this kind of dominance entering the season.
For the better part of three months, it was disillusionment that Verlander provided instead. The six-time All-Star had a 4.96 ERA on July 2.
“People are so quick to think that pitchers are robots and baseball players are robots, and they write you off because you have a bad stretch. I was searching for my mechanics from day one, just knew it wasn’t right,” he said.
Verlander tinkered with myriad adjustments, trying to cut down on his walks and limit the foul balls. Finally, in early July, he found the answer.
“Since then,” he said, “it’s been a drastic improvement. That’s what this game is, it’s a constant game of adjustments.”
Zimmermann would say the same thing. Through the first three months, he was awful. He had an ERA of 5.87 on July 7. He was serving up a whopping 2.1 HR/9.
Like Verlander, he searched and searched for a solution. He seemed to have found it in June with a new slider grip, but things cratered again shortly thereafter. His fastball command was failing him. So was his curveball.
Suddenly, after the All-Star break, it all started clicking.
In his past five starts, Zimmermann has a 3.45 ERA. He has gone seven innings in each of the past three, a feat he hadn’t achieved since the spring of 2016. Most notably, the home runs are down. Way down. He’s surrendered just two in his past 32 innings.
For the first time all year, Verlander and Zimmermann are pitching well at the same time. Both of them, together.
“That’s what we were hoping for,” said Ausmus.
It’s enough to make you wonder what could have been.
“Can’t look in the past, man,” said Verlander. “Can’t look in the rearview mirror. Can only go forward. Control what you can control.”
There was a time when looking ahead was viable for this team, when there was still promise in the sentiment. In mid June, when the A.L. Central was up for grabs and so much baseball remained, Ausmus talked about what it would take for the Tigers to make a move.
He pointed to Verlander, Zimmermann and Fulmer.
“If you pitch well on a regular basis in baseball you’re gonna win games. And that’s how you expect to cover a four-games-under-.500 deficit. Quite frankly, if those three are pitching well for the remainder of the season, we’ll easily cover that,” said Ausmus.
It didn’t happen when it needed to. Verlander and Zimmermann couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. That it’s happening now, with the Tigers all but finished, is salt in the wound of a painful season.
Verlander and Zimmermann have arrived when the year is already gone.
“I’m not writing anything off,” said Ausmus, as is his wont (and his duty). “It’s gonna be a huge uphill climb, but it’s not unprecedented. If Fulmer comes back sometime next week and these two guys keep pitching like they’re pitching, you always have a chance.”
Heck, man, it’s August.