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The Tigers have to figure out Cleveland if they’re going to contend in October

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The Tigers’ starting rotation can’t keep the Indians off the board, and that’s a problem.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT — The Indians have unequivocally had the Tigers’ number in 2016. So, too, have they tagged Justin Verlander the last two times he’s faced their offense. After a four-game winning streak against the Mariners, Detroit had a chance to do some damage in the division but for the ninth time this year, they got pummeled instead.

Verlander hasn’t been Cleveland’s only victim, but he’s certainly put up some thorough stinkers. Of the three rough starts he’s had this year, two came against the Indians and in every occasion he lasted no more than five innings. All three resulted in a loss, and he gave up seven runs in the first two, eight on Sunday. But outside of that, he’s been his usual self.

“I guess it started out alright and then that one inning fell apart,” Verlander said after Sunday’s loss. “It really sucks cause I worked my tail off the last couple months or month and a half to get back to where I wanna be. To have one start blow up in your face sucks but turn the page and move forward. I wish I could've done a better job for our team today, it would've been a big win for us. Obviously it didn't happen (the way) anybody drew it up, so press forward.”

The problem is, none of these games have been typical for the Tigers. They’ve been outscored 60-20 by the Indians and only one was a close loss. Detroit has gotten walloped and the starters have paid the price more oft than the bullpen — as odd as that seems. The rotation has given up 45 of the runs, with Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann at the heart of the problem.

Nine straight losses and three consecutive sweeps is a troubling trend and right now, the Tigers don’t have an answer for it. Nor does Verlander, who admitted that in this case, he was “pretty tired” after pitching the fourth inning in 88 degree weather with humidity. That being said, manager Brad Ausmus wanted to stay with him even after the third homer in an effort to stay away from the already-taxed bullpen.

In either case, the situation had long gotten away from Verlander, and it’s a representation of how any game against Cleveland feels before a series even begins. The division is still a close race nearing the halfway point of the season, so it’s not as if three losses in the midst of a hot streak of baseball is going to sink the team. But it still bugs the Tigers that they can’t find a way to get to the Indians, especially coming off a four-game sweep of the Mariners.

“Yeah a little bit,” Verlander said. “And it also bothers me because I worked so hard and then have a clunker like this. It's kind of the theme of the season, I guess. You take away, for me, particularly, three really bad starts, and everything else has been really good. I need to find a way to limit those clunkers and make them four runs (instead of eight) and keep us in the game. Today was obviously horrible.”

The Tigers face the Indians twice more on the road before closing out the home portion of the year in Detroit. In June, these losses are a frustrating inconvenience but in August or September, it could mean the difference between the division title or Wild Card, and going home after 162 games. Going forward, if the Tigers have any hope of putting a hurt on Cleveland, then their starting rotation needs to start limiting the damage.