August remains unkind to Bonderman

August remains unkind to Bonderman

DETROIT -- The Tigers are learning to deal with Jeremy Bonderman's first-inning damage. It's the sixth that's becoming the bigger frustration.

Twice in the last seven days, Bonderman has taken a quality start and a close game into that point against the Yankees. Last time out, it was a Johnny Damon solo homer that sent Bonderman to defeat. On Saturday, Damon's RBI triple merely finished off the damage that Melky Cabrera's bases-clearing three-bagger created.

The 7-2 Tigers loss dropped them back to 2 1/2 games behind the Indians in the American League Central, the same place where they began Friday night before their marathon victory, while keeping them five back of the Mariners in the AL Wild Card race. Bonderman's sixth loss in his last seven starts, meanwhile, dropped his record to 10-7 after he stood at 10-1 on July 13.

It's not his record, however, that Bonderman is overly concerned about. He has posted a 7.93 ERA over eight starts since that most recent victory, while allowing 65 hits over 47 2/3 innings, and he's searching for a way to stop the slide.

"It's one of the most frustrating things I've gone through," Bonderman said of his second half. "I've been around for a while. I know what it takes. I've learned a lot. But when your ball's staying flat, staying up in the zone, you're not going to be successful. Earlier in the year, I was successful by keeping the ball down and moving it around. Right now, I'm not doing it."

For five-plus innings, he kept the Tigers in the game, despite two more first-inning runs. Once the Yankees added on, however, the flatness that one might have expected to see after Friday's late night seemed to settle in.

"If we keep it at 3-2," manager Jim Leyland said, "we've got a shot."

Twice, Bonderman was a strike away from retiring the side in the opening inning. Bobby Abreu grounded a 1-2 pitch through the right side for a single, then a 1-2 count to Alex Rodriguez became a two-out walk when Bonderman missed the outside corner on back-to-back sliders.

That brought up Hideki Matsui, who lined a first-pitch fastball into left-center field to double in both runners. They raised Bonderman's first-inning damage on the season to 37 runs out of the 94 he has allowed overall.

He has allowed first-inning runs in each of his last seven starts, but two runs or fewer in his last four. It's still more than he wants, obviously, but by settling down from there, he has made sure it doesn't doom him for the rest of the game.

Other than a Damon solo homer on a third-inning fastball, Bonderman held down the Yankees from the second inning through the fifth. In the meantime, Magglio Ordonez's first-inning RBI single and a fifth-inning passed ball and wild pitch scoring Brandon Inge brought the Tigers back to within a run. Both runners reached scoring position on stolen bases, part of the Tigers' effort to manufacture offense against Yankees starter Chien-Meng Wang.

"I thought he was much better tonight than he was in New York [on Sunday]," Leyland said of Wang. "I thought he was pretty powerful, sharp tonight."

Lost in Friday's win was the fact that the Tigers overcame a rough start from Andrew Miller, who gave up six runs in four-plus innings. The way Wang was pitching, they didn't have that luxury on Saturday night, but they nearly kept the game close enough for a home run late. The decisive sixth ruled out that chance.

After singles from Matsui and Robinson Cano, Bonderman tried throwing power stuff to Wilson Betemit and missed, issuing a five-pitch walk. He went after Cabrera with a first pitch that had the break he wanted, but not the location.

"It broke," Bonderman said, "but it doesn't matter if it's over the middle of the plate. It falls right into his swing."

Cabrera lined it down the right-field line and into the corner.

Bonderman was charged with seven runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings. He failed to strike out a batter for the first time since June 21, 2003, in the middle of his rookie season.

The one no-decision Bonderman has had in the last seven starts was on Aug. 14 at Cleveland, where he tossed six scoreless innings after a two-run first. In his outing against Tampa Bay before that and his two meetings with the Yankees since, the add-on runs have doomed him. Each time, they came after he seemed to settle down the second time through the order.

"I'm definitely frustrated," Bonderman said. "All I've got to do is keep working and getting deep into games. Giving up runs late is what's killing me right now. I've got to put up zeros from the first inning on. If you give up runs, then give up one and don't give up a bunch and stop the bleeding."

Leyland doesn't have a clear answer why, but he knows why the Yankees lineup is a difficult matchup for his young right-hander.

"No. 1, they have a lot of left-handed hitters, which makes it a little bit more difficult," Leyland said. "No. 2, when you've got left-handed hitters, in most cases, it's pretty adamant that you've got something that changes speeds. And in most cases for Bondo, most everything's hard. And at some point, the changeup has even been a little bit hard. It's not, a lot of the times, the pitch. It's the speed of the pitch that gets the hitters off balance."

Right now, Bonderman's outings are becoming unbalanced bookends. The first-inning runs are still there, but the later innings that are tilting his season.

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