VerHagen can't sustain early success

Tigers righty makes first start of 2019, but struggles with command

July 26th, 2019

SEATTLE -- For and the Tigers’ depleted rotation, Thursday’s start against the Mariners -- despite leading to the Tigers’ 25th loss in their past 29 games in an 8-2 effort -- is something to build on.

VerHagen retired six of his first eight batters, showed good life on his fastball, complemented it with a tight-spinning curveball and a plus slider, and had a 1-0 lead when he entered the third.

Then it unwound.

VerHagen walked three of his first four in the third, was plagued by an infield miscue by second baseman that allowed Daniel Vogelbach to reach on a would-be double play, which positioned red-hot Tim Beckham to crush a 415-foot grand slam with just one out during the ensuing at-bat. VerHagen gave up another run in the fourth after J.P. Crawford tripled and scored on Omar Narvaez’s ground-rule double.

The final line in his first MLB start since June 4, 2018: seven runs (six earned), six hits, four strikeouts and, most glaring, four walks. He dropped to 0-4 with a 10.13 ERA in five Major League starts.

“I'd be lying if I didn't say it feels like deja vu, but I try to keep a fresh mentality every day,” VerHagen said. “I try to just keep grinding, keep working hard and keep working on stuff every day.”

VerHagen’s most glaring issue, as it was before his Minor League demotion on May 11, was command. He’s walked 14 of the 60 batters he’s faced this season, for a rate of 23.3 percent. That’s the third-highest among pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings. Teammate added to his MLB-high 30.8 percent with a walk during the eighth on Thursday.

“I'm probably trying to be a little too fine instead of just competing and seeing if they can hit it,” VerHagen said.

“I think for him, at times, we would throw a good curveball or a good slider and either get a strike or a swing-and-miss or something and then we'd call it again,” catcher said. “I think at times, he'd try to make it better or tried to make it really nasty instead of just kind of throwing the same one with the same intent. I think that's something we can learn from.”

VerHagen’s rough start offered a candid reflection of the state of the Tigers’ rotation. Significant injuries to Michael Fulmer (Tommy John surgery), Matt Moore (right knee), Tyson Ross (neck) and Spencer Turnbull (upper back) have forced Detroit to allocate innings to unproven and inconsistent arms.

Before he was recalled for Thursday’s start, VerHagen had spent his past 11 outings at Triple-A Toledo to help polish his command, after giving up 10 runs in 10 appearances out of the Tigers’ bullpen to start the season. For Toledo, he went 4-2 with a 4.42 ERA after being designated for assignment for the second straight season.

“I thought his stuff was good,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I thought he showed good pitches. I thought he had quality. He had some depth. Like I said, if you make a play in the one inning and then he just really hung a curveball and that was probably ended up killing him. We know it was. But his stuff was good. His arm was good. Everything was good early in the game. We liked the ball was coming out of his hand. We feel pretty good about that.”

The Tigers’ offense didn’t exactly help VerHagen’s case. Against Mariners opener Erik Swanson, who entered play with a 7.90 ERA, Detroit couldn’t capitalize on a leadoff walk by JaCoby Jones, and saw its next six straight retired.

Former Mariner Hicks crushed a 447-foot homer in the first at-bat against Seattle bulk-innings pitcher Wade LeBlanc to lead off the third. But with the chance to rally in the fifth, Miguel Cabrera grounded into a 5-4-3 double play with the bases loaded to end the inning.