Justin Verlander doesn't just want to get the Detroit Tigers to October baseball. He would also like to recapture the form that has made him one of the game's top pitchers over his nine-year career.
Verlander looks to put a stop to the longest winless stretch of his career on Friday night when the AL Central-leading Tigers square off against the playoff-hopeful Kansas City Royals in the opener of a three-game set.
A six-time All-Star, Verlander won both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in 2011 with a 24-5 record and 2.40 earned run average before winning another 17 games last year. However, the right-hander is in danger of posting his first sub-.500 campaign since 2008 as he is just 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA in 30 starts this season.
Verlander has not won since Aug. 6, going 0-3 with a 4.17 ERA in six starts since. He figures to have just a handful of starts left to get things straightened out.
"The deadline is there for me," Verlander said on Detroit's official website. "I've got to figure it out, and I've got to figure it out in a hurry."
The 30-year-old's struggles this year have been captured in his meetings with the Royals. He is winless in five starts against them, going 0-3 with a 3.12 ERA.
That includes a 4-3 setback at home versus Kansas City on Saturday, when he allowed four runs on eight hits and a walk over seven inning of work. The deciding blow came on a two-run homer by Salvador Perez with two outings in the sixth inning.
Even with Verlander's recent struggles, the Tigers have a magic number of 11 to clinch the division after taking the rubber match of a three-game set with the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday. They got 7 1/3 scoreless frames from Anibal Sanchez, who won his 14th game of the season.
"Early in the game he struggled with his command, but as the game went on he got sharper. Those last two innings were really good," said Tigers catcher Alex Avila.
Following a 4-5 road trip that included series losses in Boston and Kansas City, the Tigers will wrap up their home portion of their regular-season schedule with a 10-game stay at Comerica Park. They enter the stretch six games up on second-place Cleveland and seven games ahead of Kansas City, which is looking for its first playoff berth since winning the World Series in 1985.
The Royals are 2 1/2 games back of the second wild card in the AL and enjoyed a much-needed off day on Thursday. Their 6-2 win over the Indians on Wednesday wrapped a stretch of 44 games in 44 days.
Kansas City went 26-18 over that time, winning eight of its last 11.
With no game on Thursday, manager Ned Yost was awarded the chance to mix up his rotation. He decided to skip Danny Duffy for his scheduled start tonight, instead turning to Bruce Chen, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie for this big series.
"You're always planning," Yost told Kansas City's website. "It moves everybody up now, but it moves everybody up at the end, too, which allows us to have James Shields available for a playoff game -- another reason we did it, too. It benefits Duffy and just solidifies the rotation going through the last two and a half weeks of the season."
Chen gets the start tonight, a good choice given his victory over the Tigers last Sunday. He allowed just two runs on a Jose Iglesias homer over seven innings of work, and has yielded just five runs over his last three outings overall (2-0).
The 36-year-old left-hander has had his struggles at Comerica Park, where he is 2-6 lifetime with a 6.60 ERA. He gave up six runs over 5 1/3 innings during a loss in Detroit on Aug. 18.
Chen is 4-2 with a 2.98 ERA in 11 starts this season while posting a 2.79 ERA in 30 total appearances. His road ERA sits at 2.41.
The Royals' series victory over the Tigers last weekend gave them a 9-7 edge in the season series.