In Justin Verlander’s first start of the season, he pitched like an ace.
No, he wasn’t particularly dominant. And no, the Mets did not win.
But Verlander, 40, took the mound Thursday afternoon at Detroit’s Comerica Park — the scene of many of his career highlights from his days with the Tigers — gave up back-to-back home runs in the first inning, and then he refused to give up. Even as the Tigers, one of the worst hitting teams in baseball, drove several of Verlander’s pitches into hard-hit outs, he stayed steady, keeping the score close through five gutsy innings in which he allowed five hits, two runs and one walk and strike out five batters over 79 pitches.
In a season in which the starting rotations of both New York teams have seemed almost cursed by injuries and ineffectiveness, that was enough to find a ray of sunshine.
But there are still plenty of clouds.
The Mets, with the highest payroll in major league history (and a record tax bill to come) went on to lose, 2-0, completing a brutal three-game sweep in Detroit. They have lost nine of their last 11 games and have seen their deficit to Atlanta in the National League East climb from half a game through play on April 22 to five and a half games ahead of the Braves’ game against the Miami Marlins on Thursday afternoon.
The season has not gone much better for the Yankees, who have the worst record in the American League East (17-16) and beyond their own ace, Gerrit Cole, have struggled with starting pitching.
Coming into the season, both rotations had projected to be among the best in baseball. The Yankees, who already boasted three All-Star starters in Nestor Cortes, Luis Severino and Cole, added the All-Star left-hander Carlos Rodón in free agency on a six-year, $162 million contract. The Mets, who already had the highest-paid starting pitcher in major league history, Max Scherzer, complemented their ace with Verlander (giving him the same $43.3 million salary as Scherzer), while also signing Kodai Senga, a promising right-hander from Japan, and José Quintana, a veteran left-hander who was solid for Pittsburgh and St. Louis last season.
For all that star power, the Yankees’ starting rotation came into Thursday ranked 11th in the majors in ERA at 4.07 — bolstered mightily by Cole’s sterling 1.35 effort — and the Mets were ranked 25th at 5.56, which was nearly two full runs wor se than they were last season.
Most of that has been a result of injuries. Rodón (elbow and back issues) and Severino (lat strain) have yet to pitch this season, nor has Quintana (rib surgery). Senga (3-1, 4.15 ERA) has tantalized, Even if his results are mixed, but Cortes (3-2, 4.91), a breakout star last season, has disappointed.
On top of all of that, Scherzer, in his second year with the Mets, was ejected from a start against the Dodgers on April 19 and accepted a 10-game suspension for a violation of MLB’s prohibition on the use of foreign substances. In his first game back from his suspension, allowing six earned runs over three and one-thirds innings Wednesday in the second game of a doubleheader.
With a group of mostly fill-in starters unable to shoulder the load that was expected to be carried by their stars, the Yankees and the Mets have combined to start the season 33-31. At the same point last season, they were a combined. 45-19.
How soon the cavalry will arrive remains an open question. It was announced this week that Rodón would undergo further testing on his back, and Quintana, who just started playing catch, is likely months away from a return. Severino is on the verge of beginning a rehab stint in Class A, but as he has combined for only 120 innings pitched over the last four seasons, his health will have to be closely monitored.
And for all of those reasons, having Verlander come back and fight his way through a start was a positive, even if it came in a loss. Because that’s what aces do.