Verlander’s return would help return Tiger swagger

Justin Verlander is in his first rehab assignmnent with the Toledo Mud Hens.

Justin Verlander is in his first rehab assignmnent with the Toledo Mud Hens.

David Price will be on the mound for the Detroit Tigers tonight in Chicago trying to halt a puzzling and frustrating eight-game losing streak. But as important as the ace’s outing will be for the spiraling Tigers, the organization and Tiger Nation will have their eyes on a pitcher 245 miles to the east today as well.

In Toledo about an hour before Price takes the hill, Justin Verlander will make his second rehab start for the Mud Hens. His performance will be just as important at that of Price.

The eight-game skid has left Detroit at 28-28 and in danger of falling below .500 for the first time in the Brad Ausmus era. More critically, Detroit is staring up at seven teams in the American League. Not only are they third and falling in the suddenly very competitive AL Central, they are only a game and a half ahead of the cellar-dwelling White Sox. Two more losses this weekend in the Windy City and Detroit would be in last place this late in the season for the first time since George W. Bush was president.

Even though no one expects Verlander to be “Must-See JV” again, a good outing tonight in Toledo and his return to the Tiger rotation would be a boost to the club. Verlander is a team leader, the most senior player in the organization, and a fierce competitor. His 2014 season was subpar, but if he could even return to 80% of what he was when he won the 2011 MVP and Cy Young, he’d improve the shaky Detroit rotation.

Want to see what a nightmare looks like in raw numbers? Other than Price and the steady Alfredo Simon, the Detroit rotation has been a Jekyll and Hide outfit. The epitome of that has been the bizarrely erratic Shane Greene: 0-5 with a 13.94 ERA in his six worst starts and 4-0 with a 0.85 ERA in his other six starts. He either looks like Greg Maddux or Greg Brady.

Anibal Sanchez once looked like a future Cy Young winner, but in 2015 he’s given up home runs like he’s pitching batting practice to his own kids. Among his 12 starts, Sanchez has been tagged for five runs twice, seven runs twice, and nine runs once. His ERA is an ugly 5.69 and he’s surrendered 13 home runs already, nine of them in spacious Comerica Park. That’s difficult to do.

It’s been more than eight months since Verlander pitched a major league game. That was Game Two of the American League Division Series when he handed over a 5-3 lead to the bullpen after five solid innings only to see Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria implode in the eighth inning, allowing the Orioles to win the game. No one knows what to expect from Verlander, a high-paid superstar who doesn’t seem so super any more. A dominating pitcher who has lost much of his luster. Is he emerging from a mid-career hiccup or did all those innings wear his arm down to a noodle? Will he reinvent himself and forge a second career after his “no-hitter stuff years” or will he fizzle and be remembered more like Schoolboy Rowe and Denny McLain, two brilliant Tiger hurlers who seemed destined for Hall of Fame careers before they suffered arm injuries?

My money is on Verlander finding a way to become a good pitcher again. Not the JV who threw 120+ pitches nearly every start and made our jaws drop when he dialed up to 101 MPH in the ninth inning. Not him. But I think Verlander can be a very good six inning starter, maybe even capture some of that magic again and go deep in games when needed. But it’ll be important for the Tigers to keep an eye on their star right-hander and Verlander will have to be honest with the team and with himself. He can’t just will himself to be great again.

Listen up here too folks: Price is a free agent and he’s pitching like he wants the big Max Scherzer-like contract this offseason. There’s no guarantee that he’ll resign with our Bengals. By all accounts Price likes Detroit, he likes the veteran team and the city. But if another club gives him $200 million plus, you can say goodbye to the tall lefty. That would leave the Tigers with a rotation of Sanchez, Simon, Greene, maybe a Buck Farmer or Kyle Lobstein (also with injury issues) and Verlander. The only two pitchers capable of being an ace in that scenario are Sanchez and JV. There’s more riding on Verlander’s return than just the 2015 season and a fifth straight postseason gig.

Justin Verlander has grown a full beard in 2015 while he’s been on the sidelines. His face looks different and he’ll surely be a different pitcher too. But he’ll still be able to inspire his team by example and through leadership, and in that sense it’ll be the same old Verlander coming back to the Tigers.