Tigers' struggles may turn into long-term trouble
CLEVELAND -- Momentum? Don't talk to Jim Leyland about momentum.At least not if the conversation is at all related to baseball. "No such thing," Leyland said. "Because it's a different pitcher every day. It's not like you have the same point guard, the same forward, the same center and you win so many games in a row with the same guys. The biggest factor of the next game is the pitcher. So if he doesn't have a good game, you can't get any momentum going." And even if momentum does, in fact, exist in this game, it sure hasn't existed for Leyland's Tigers in 2012. We all tuned into the final moments of Justin Verlander's near no-no against the Pirates last Friday night -- an outing Leyland, who has managed more than 3,000 games, called "probably the best game I've ever seen pitched." But if you tuned in the next night, you saw rookie Drew Smyly coughing up a pair of home runs to Andrew McCutchen, en route to a 4-3 loss. That sort of sums up the way this season has gone for Detroit. "If that [Verlander performance] doesn't jump-start you," Leyland asked, "what does?" Nearly two months into a season of enormous expectations, nothing seems to jump-start these Tigers, who are now four games back of the Indians and two games under .500 after falling, 5-3, at Progressive Field on Tuesday night. For the record, that was the Tigers' first loss to the Tribe in 11 games, dating back to 2011, so there's yet another example of momentum not carrying over. And whatever killer instinct the Tigers possessed when they put the Indians -- and everybody else -- away late last year was once again not evident on this particular night, as they couldn't capitalize on Ubaldo Jimenez's shaky command or the two runners they put aboard against Chris Perez in the ninth. This is, of course, the same Tigers team that entered this season as baseball's equivalent of getting voted "Most Likely to Succeed" by your senior class. Really, if you were forced, for some bizarre reason, to bet your life on the outcome of any of baseball's six division races, wouldn't you have picked the Tigers in the AL Central? Sure you would have. And that's what makes the Tigers' positively pedestrian start to the season so confounding. They very well might still run away with the Central when all is said and done (remember, last year's club didn't hit its stride until August), but for now it's hard not to be amazed that they've amassed just two winning streaks of three games or more and they haven't won back-to-back games since mid-April. "It's been kind of tough," Verlander said. "It's been back and forth. We've never really gotten on a roll. We win one, we lose one, we win one, we lose one. But obviously this team is capable of going on a long winning streak, and that's what we need to start doing." One might be tempted to call this an underachieving club. But before you do, remember that Verlander -- in terms of wins and ERA and OPS against, among other numbers -- is actually ahead of last year's Cy Young/MVP pace. Remember that Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, while not exactly setting the world aflame from the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, as so many of us anticipated, are nonetheless both among the top five in the Majors in OPS at their respective positions. Remember that Doug Fister missed a month with a left side strain and has looked sharp since his return. By and large, then, the primary pieces that make this club go are not necessarily at fault, though once-perfect closer Jose Valverde, who is carrying the weight of a 5.51 ERA and is newly returned from a back issue, is a notable exception. But there are serious concerns on this club, and they relate largely to the stars' supporting cast. No momentum? Blame it on the Jekyll and Hyde performance of Max Scherzer, whose brilliance against the Buccos on Sunday (15 strikeouts in seven innings) only makes his struggles all the more maddening. Blame it on Rick Porcello, whose first-inning ERA is a ghastly 15.00. Blame it on the Valverde-led bullpen, which has the highest ERA in the league. Blame it on substandard offensive production from young pieces like Alex Avila, who broke out in such a big way last season, and Brennan Boesch, who seemed poised for an Avila-like breakout but has instead been demoted from the two-hole. And blame it on similarly disappointing production from veterans like Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta. We figured this wouldn't be a particularly strong defensive club, and that's proven to be the case. But we also figured this was a club with a deep enough lineup to outhit its deficiencies, and that hasn't proven true. Not yet, anyway. And so the Tigers find themselves even more reliant than expected on a pitching staff that simply hasn't found its rhythm. Verlander is Verlander. No worries there. And the return of Fister, who makes his next start Wednesday against the Tribe, is a big boost, because his presence is as important now as it was in the home stretch of 2011. "The guys love playing behind him," pitching coach Jeff Jones said of Fister. "Everybody knows what he did for us last year, and it just makes it more of a smooth transition in our rotation." But the need for more consistency from Scherzer and Porcello, in particular, and the bullpen, in general, can't be overstated. Because without it, the Tigers won't do much to counter their skipper's assertion about the non-existence of momentum.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.