KANSAS CITY -- Justin Verlander still has his swagger. He still has a power fastball to blow by hitters. And yes, he still has claim to owning the Royals.
All he left town without claiming on Wednesday was a win, thanks to a ninth-inning rally off closer Jose Valverde and a 10th-inning Eric Hosmer RBI single for 3-2 Tigers loss. And that has to worry the Tigers more than anything about Verlander's fastball anymore.
"It's tough," catcher Brayan Pena said. "It's very tough. It's a very tough loss."
The Tigers were one strike away from shutting out the Royals and taking a road series, and Verlander was a strike away from another win in Kansas City. One swing from Lorenzo Cain on Valverde's splitter turned the questions around.
It marked the second time in a week-and-a-half that a ninth-inning comeback has left a pitching gem by a Tigers starter unrewarded. Like Max Scherzer's no-decision on May 31 in Baltimore, this one was an out away from a save when an opponent homered off a split-finger.
This one wasn't a walk-off shot, but with two strikes, it was closer to a Tigers win.
"It hurts," Verlander said. "You've got two outs and two strikes and the ball leaves the yard.
"It's not a good feeling, but it only ties the game, so immediately you have to change your mindset to, 'Well, let's go out and win it.' But to lose it that way, it's a tough pill to swallow."
The mindset eventually has to be a concern. As consistently effective as the Tigers' rotation has been lately, 18 quality starts in Detroit's last 19 games, the Tigers are 10-9 in that stretch. Run support has arguably been a bigger issue, especially with two 1-0 shutouts in extra innings and three losses when allowing three runs.
Valverde, by contrast, has taken just two of those losses. The Tigers held on through a two-homer ninth inning last Friday against Cleveland, because he entered with a four-run lead. Still, there's arguably a different feeling when a lead gets squandered late than when a team never leads a low-scoring game at all.
"Well, losing period stinks," Verlander said, "but when you lose one that's so close to being a win, it makes it that much more difficult."
As good as this Detroit rotation is, it can't pitch this well, this often the rest of the season. The starters will have their rough outings, and the Tigers will have slugfests they'll have to overcome.
Verlander never gave the Royals a feeling that they had a shot over seven scoreless innings. He held the Royals hitless with runners in scoring position by not allowing a runner to reach scoring position. Three singles and two walks comprised the entirety of his damage, and none of those runners advanced, not even the two guys to reach base leading off the second and fifth.
"Verlander being Verlander as usual, dominating," Cain said.
For Verlander against the Royals, it's business as usual. Even with his disastrous visit last August, he's 15-2 with a 2.56 ERA for his career against the Royals, and 9-2 with a 2.32 ERA at Kauffman Stadium. For this season, though, it was a big step for him.
"For me, it was my best start," the ace said, "just because of the way I've been working to get back where I need to be. I feel like I've been getting better every start. I wasn't exactly where I want to be, but pretty doggone close."
Valverde was where he wanted for all but one awful pitch. He replaced Drew Smyly following Hosmer's leadoff single in the ninth, retiring Salvador Perez and sent down Billy Butler swinging before putting Cain in an 0-2 hole. With a chance to finish him off, Valverde went to his splitter, the secondary pitch that has been intended for a change of pace.
"If I throw a good split finger, he swings and misses," Valverde said. "But it was a little up and he read it."
The splitter never split.
"He left it up out over the plate," manager Jim Leyland said. "It was a high split, and it didn't split too good, and the kid hit it."
As Pena put it, "It was one of those that we wish that we could take it back."
Cain pounced on it, sending a drive deep to left-center field. With the hot weather and a breeze blowing out, the ball carried into the second row of seats beyond the fence.
"I put it on the barrel, but after that it was either wind or carry," Cain said. "I was blowing for it to go out for me and it did."
Valverde is 9-for-12 in save situations. It's the pitching numbers that are more of a concern. It was the fifth home run Valverde has allowed in his last six outings, covering 27 batters. Four have been hit off splitters, all in two-strike counts. He has six strikeouts in that stretch, so he's getting some putaways with his mix, but he has paid dearly for some he hasn't located.
The five home runs match his season totals from 2010 and 2011. As much as his fastball-heavy arsenal last season came under scrutiny, he only allowed three homers in the regular season. To put it another way, he has allowed more home runs throwing splitters this year than he allowed throwing fastballs last year.
He isn't walking guys, and he isn't giving up high hit totals. Even his strikeout rate over a small innings total as higher than last year. But the homers nullify all that.
At some point very soon, the Tigers will have to figure out their plans for the stretch run, and decide their needs ahead of next month's Non-waiver Trade Deadline. As such, they'll have to evaluate whether Valverde is their closer from there on out, and whether closer prospect Bruce Rondon is ready for a Major League role, closer or otherwise.
Like the closer's job itself, it's a pass-fail evaluation.
"I think no closer wants to blow a save, but that's a part of the game," Valverde said. "The closer has two things: Save the game or lose the game. That's what happened."