Verlander, offense struggle vs. Red Sox

Verlander, offense struggle vs. Red Sox

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander's arm may be healthy, but his statistics are hurting.

Verlander hit the mid-90s on the Comerica Park radar gun on Thursday night, and he had enough deception to strike out five batters over six innings. His downfall in his loss to the Red Sox was far more about where his pitches were going than how soon they got there. It was especially about the one pitch that went out.

"The stuff is fine," manager Jim Leyland said after Thursday's 5-1 loss. "The execution of pitches is not."

He wasn't getting much argument about that on this night. Though Verlander has said often that he feels close to a turnaround, this was more of a step back.

"I talked about how I took two steps in the [previous] couple of starts where I really felt like I was throwing the ball well," Verlander said. "Obviously, it didn't work out for me numbers-wise, didn't get wins, but I felt like I threw the ball very well [those games].

"Today it kind of felt like I took a step backward."

The bright side was that he and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez found the flaw, his body flying open on his delivery and flattening out his fastball. But that discovery came too late to save him from Thursday's damage.

The loss dropped Verlander's record to 1-6. In terms of wins and losses, it's the worst start by a Tigers pitcher since 2003, when Mike Maroth went 0-9 on his way to 21 losses and Adam Bernero went 1-12 before Detroit traded him to Colorado in midseason.

The Tigers' offensive struggles in Verlander's starts haven't helped him. Detroit has scored two runs or fewer in six of Verlander's eight starts this season. However, Verlander also has just one quality start this year, accounting for his lone victory, on April 22 against Texas. The one or two runs from Detroit's offense haven't meant much, given the scoring from the opposition.

Thursday's start, however, might well have come down to one pitch. Though the Tigers trailed the rest of the evening after the Red Sox put up a three-run second inning, it was only a two-run deficit until Kevin Youkilis haunted them again.

With a 3-1 Boston lead, Jacoby Ellsbury started the fifth inning with a single. He was nearly headed home on Dustin Pedroia's line drive into the gap in left-center field, but rookie left fielder Matt Joyce ran it down for a diving catch. David Ortiz flied out to left on a 3-0 pitch for the second out.

Verlander was one out away from escaping a potentially disastrous inning. Then his first-pitch fastball to Youkilis wandered over the heart of the plate. Youkilis lofted it deep to left.

"It just ran back in," Verlander said. "That one to Youkilis, I'm just trying to get a first-pitch strike and get ahead of him, and it ran back out over the middle."

Joyce nearly rescued Verlander with another highlight play, but he couldn't find the ball in order to time his jump.

"I knew he hit it well," Joyce said. "I went back, looked up and I could not see it."

Asked how close he came, Joyce estimated it at a foot or two. Instead, Youkilis had his fourth home run of the series, and the Red Sox had a four-run lead.

"That's the game, really," Verlander said.

It was eerily similar to Verlander's previous start last Saturday at Minnesota, where he took a two-run deficit into the seventh until Craig Monroe hit a hanging breaking ball deep to left for a two-run homer.

The common denominator, in those two starts as well as the Youkilis home runs this series, was pitch execution.

"Up here you have to execute pitches," Leyland said. "Our entire staff did a poor, poor job the entire series against Youkilis -- not with the thought process, but executing pitches. You have to execute pitches to get people out, and we just gave him cookie after cookie for three days. He just beat our brains out."

Specifically, though, Leyland also pointed to Verlander's execution, noticing the mechanical flaw on Verlander's offspeed arsenal.

"He's rushing his body to try to deceive hitters with the speed of his body rather than the arm action," Leyland said. "That's not good. You have to just stay smooth."

Verlander noticed it, too, on many pitches.

"I was flying with my front side a little bit," he said. "When you're doing that, the tendency is your fastball kind of flattens out, runs back over the plate, especially when you're trying to go away."

Boston's other three runs came in a second inning that featured four straight singles and an especially damaging hit-by-pitch. After Mike Lowell's leadoff bouncer through the middle and J.D. Drew's liner to right-center field, Verlander fell behind on Varitek before the Boston catcher hit a sharp ground ball that glanced off the glove of diving third baseman Carlos Guillen. The ball wandered far enough into left-center field that Drew rounded third and followed Lowell home.

After Coco Crisp's bunt single, Verlander hit Julio Lugo with a pitch, loading the bases for Ellsbury's sacrifice fly. It could have been worse, and without the Youkilis homer, it could have still been close.

Verlander and Hernandez talked about his mechanics after the game, and they think they know how to fix it.

"All you can do is focus on the next start," Verlander said. "I've got four days, five days, to use on getting my front side closed, take another step forward."

His steps forward, however, can't seem to get him out of his early-season fall.

"He's obviously a very talented pitcher, and he'll be fine," Leyland said, "but he's got some work to do. This is a real trial period for him, maturing and not giving hitters too much credit and not trying to change your pitching style and panicking and all this and that.

"Stay after the basics, execute your pitches and use all three of your pitches, because he's got three above-average pitches. But you have to execute those pitches."

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