(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - In his first moments as a non-first-place manager, Brad Ausmus sounded rather displaced.
Referring to a malaise in which the Detroit Tigers have averaged about two wins per week over the last month, Ausmus said of the Tigers players, "They're getting sick of it. Anyone that would go through something like this, especially on a team that's supposed to win, would get sick of it. I'm sick of it, they're sick of it, the fans are sick of it. We're just sick of it."
In his first moments with the same number of losses as he had all of last season, Max Scherzer sounded even unhappier than Ausmus.
"I didn't pitch well," Scherzer said. "I can give you all the generic (stuff) you want, but I didn't put hitters away with two strikes in the count."
He reiterated the two-strike point during a post-game session with reporters that was like Justin Verlander's the night before: it lasted more than 10 minutes; he answered questions until there were no more; he was unsparingly critical of himself and fell back on neither the past nor future as a shelter. He knows that right now he must be better.
Although Verlander gets most of the scrutiny, Scherzer also has had his struggles in the Tigers' one-month dive from baseball's best record to second place in the AL Central.
Scherzer gave up two homers and seven runs in the second inning Tuesday night. Kansas City rode that big inning to its ninth straight win, 11-4, at Comerica Park. The Royals took over first place from the Tigers by a half-game. KC hasn't been in first this late since 2003.
It's the first time this season the Tigers have been out of first place. They will regain it if they beat the Royals this afternoon. But if the Royals, they're guaranteed to leave town in first place even if Anibal Sanchez wins Thursday's series finale.
A month ago tonight in Boston, the Tigers won their sixth straight game and raised their record to 27-12, the best in the majors. That was the night Sanchez returned from the disabled list. It seemed that the Tigers' starting pitching, their strength in the 27-12 start, might get even better.
The reverse has happened. Sanchez has been the Tigers' only consistent starter since then. Since that 27-12 peak, the Tigers have gone 9-19.
"Quite frankly, I stopped saying 'every team goes through this' about a week ago," Ausmus said. "Teams go through losing streaks and slumps, but this is a little bit more than what it should have been. The question is how do you fix it. And really for the most part, when we've struggled our pitching has struggled a little bit, whether it's the starters or the bullpen. Somehow we've got to get that back on track."
In the 9-19 downturn, Verlander and Scherzer are each 1-for-6 in quality starts. The Tigers have won two of those games which Scherzer started, but Tuesday marked the second time in that streak that Scherzer gave up at least seven runs.
The seven-run second marked the most runs he's ever given up in an inning in the big leagues, according to research done on Baseball-Reference.com. The first eight batters of the inning reached base, five with two strikes in the count. After Alex Gordon hit a two-run homer for the first two runs, Salvador Perez drew a walk after being down 0-2, and Mike Moustakas followed with a two-run homer on a full count.
"I didn't execute with two strikes," Scherzer said afterward. "I'm not putting hitters away in those counts, and that's the difference right now."
Scherzer is 8-3 after he went 21-3 last year and won the Cy Young Award. He doesn't blame any of his recent trouble on the hitters making adjustments to him.
Scherzer gave up the 10 runs the night after Verlander gave up seven. According to research by STATS LLC, it's the most runs ever given up in consecutive games by teammates who have each won the Cy Young Award.
So in 67 games as a manager, Ausmus has experienced both ends of the Sparky Anderson spectrum. As Anderson did in '84, Ausmus had the thrill of a strong start that suggested a wire-to-wire run in first place (OK, 27-12 wasn't 35-5, but it still felt pretty good). Since then, Ausmus often has experienced what Anderson often did in his final seasons: When the starting pitching doesn't perform, it's hard for anything to look good.
It also means a lot of wear on the bullpen.
Three relievers — Evan Reed, Phil Coke and newcomer Blaine Hardy — have worked each of the last two nights and thrown at least 39 pitches over those two games. Ausmus was asked at his post-game press conference if the Tigers might have to call up a reliever for today's game in order to have enough fresh arms.
"I'll deal with that when I'm done here," he said.
It's hardly all that he has to deal with.