In long run, Detroit Tigers can't afford to waste great starts

By Rob Parker - Sports Columnist
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DETROIT - We learned two things about the Tigers in the first week of the 2014 season.

First, the Tigers STILL have tremendous starting pitching. Secondly, the bullpen stinks.

Both showed up on Sunday afternoon.

Justin Verlander pitched well enough to win, but lost 3-1 to the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park.

The Tigers - who won their first four games of the season - are no longer perfect.

But you could almost say that about their starting rotation thus far. They have been masterful. Coming into the game, the starting staff had a combined 1.82 ERA. In the first five games, the Tigers had four quality starts.

"It's been a great start," Verlander said about his fellow starters. "We've done a great job keeping our team in the ballgame and limiting big innings and the things you need to do as a starting rotation to be successful."

Verlander was Exhibit A in the series final against the Orioles, allowing just two runs on five hits. He had two walks and three strikeouts.

But it wasn't enough - for the second time - for Verlander to earn a win. Verlander (0-1) has made two starts. He got a no-decision in the Opener against the Kansas City Royals and a loss in this game.

The offense, however, was to blame against Baltimore. It was basically nonexistent.

Granted, the bats were out in full force the previous two games when the Tigers scored a total of 17 runs. And the Tigers have a healthy .288 team batting average with seven homers.

 Still, the offense has struggled at times as well, especially against other team's top starters.

Verlander also got only one run when he exited in the opener after six innings. And Max Scherzer got a no-decision in his first start despite allowing no runs through eight innings. The Tigers scored a lone run for Scherzer, too.

"These guys are facing really good pitchers," Torii Hunter said. "Unfortunately, we haven't gotten a win for those guys yet."

In this case, Verlander was in a pitching duel with O's ace Chris Tillman, who allowed just one run, a homer by Hunter, on five hits in 8 1/3 innings. "Tillman had good stuff," said Miguel Cabrera, who had one of the five hits against Tillman. "He mixed it up, changed the sight and had a good fast ball, too."

Nonetheless, the Tigers were just a lone run down to start the ninth inning. But reliever Al Alburquerque gave up a solo homer to Matt Wieters to give Baltimore an insurance run.

Coming into the game, the bullpen was 3-0, but had a bloated 5.84 ERA. Hence, it hasn't been a pretty picture at the end of games. Even closer Joe Nathan is off to a rocky start with a 6.75 ERA and has one blown save in two tries through the first five games.

The offense just isn't as consistent as you would like to see it. If it weren't for some late-inning heroics, the Tigers could be looking at 2-3 despite some suitable-for-framing starting pitching.

There's no doubt the offense misses the punch of Prince Fielder and the .300 batting averages of Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante.

 Verlander, though, isn't bummed out that the bats have been cold in his first two starts. He's convinced that the offense will be just fine.

"My job is to go out and pitch," Verlander said. "These guys have done a great job in years past, scoring runs or coming back.

"Look at Opening Day. They came back and got me a no-decision and we ended up winning the ballgame."

When you're 4-1 through the first five games and in first place in the American League Central, it's hard to argue.

Still, it's something most will keep an eye on. Will the Tigers get these well-pitched games and not score enough runs to win? It's a legit question in the long term.

Worse, will the bullpen blow leads late in the game? Either way, the starters will be hurt the most. For now, the team has been able to win regardless.

"All five guys have done an excellent job so far," Verlander said. "If we continue to pitch this way, we win a lot of ballgames."

Just not Sunday's game.

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