DETROIT — Justin Verlander stood at his locker after being shelled.
After failing to strike out a batter for the first time in 332 games.
After losing the kind of game he used to dominate on sheer will and determination.
After losing a game the Tigers absolutely needed to win, at least, as much as you could need to win in early July.
“I got my butt kicked,” Verlander said bluntly, after the Tigers lost to the Cleveland Indians on Sunday, 11-8, falling nine games below .500.
A few minutes later, the topic changed. Suddenly, Verlander was being asked questions about trade rumors. About him possibly being traded.
That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
“It’s something that is mentioned and I would say it’s in the background,” Verlander said. “My focus is here and now. I don’t focus on that. If I need to, I’m sure (general manager Al Avila) will come and talk to me about it.”
Although on this day, Verlander did not exactly help his trade stock.
“I’m not letting anything other than pitching and playing for the Detroit Tigers get in my mind, until, or if anything happens,” he said.
Technically speaking, the Tigers reached the halfway point of the season on Sunday with a miserable 36-45 record.
But in reality, there are only 23 games left in this season before the 4 p.m.July 31 trading deadline.
At this point, the Tigers would need a miracle run to make any argument to keep this team together. The Tigers would need to go 16-7 in July, just to reach the .500 mark at the deadline.
So they wait. To shed salaries. To get younger and cheaper. And, possibly, to see whose arm falls off first, Shane Greene or Alex Wilson.
Everybody should be for sale, if they can get a good deal. Everybody but newly minted All-Star Michael Fulmer.
Seriously. Who else would you keep?
“It’s definitely a lost opportunity, there’s no question about that,” manager Brad Ausmus said about Sunday’s game, although he could just as easily have been talking about this season.
Who is to blame for this inconsistent, underperforming team?
Sit down. Relax. That’s a long list.
Avila has failed to improve this roster, or retool it, or do anything with it. To be fair, he has been stuck in this position since last winter, when he was unable to make a deal besides trading away Cameron Maybin. At that time, it made sense to stand pat.
Ausmus also deserves some blame. But not all of it. He went into most games without a complete bullpen. But I do fault him for how long he continued to use some players. See: K Rod. And for how long he kept Victor Martinez in the four hole.
The team’s future Hall of Famer — Miguel Cabrera — is hitting .262, 57 points below his career average.
The team’s closer — Francisco Rodriguez — is in the minors, hoping to get another chance, ahem, with Washington.
The team’s onetime, perennial .300 hitter — Martinez — is hitting .248.
The team’s centerfielder, at least the one who started the season in center — JaCoby Jones — is stuck in the minors.
The team’s other centerfielder — Tyler Collins — is long gone.
The team’s second baseman — Ian Kinsler — is hitting .243, which is on pace to be the worst year of his career.
The team’s young pitchers — Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd — have been inconsistent.
The team’s $110-million pitcher — Jordan Zimmermann — has a 5-6 record with a 5.58 ERA.
And the team’s bullpen.
Suffice it to say, at this rate, the Tigers are making it easy on Avila.
Six games into this home stand, this make-or-break moment in this season, they have won three and lost three.
Basically, they are stuck between a hard spot and the cellar.
Waiting for the inevitable.