KANSAS CITY -- The search for Justin Verlander goes on. Of all his favorite haunts, this seemed like the logical place to find him.
He owned Kauffman Stadium for years until last summer. When he tossed seven scoreless innings here last month, it looked like he was moving in again. But as he walked off the mound on Saturday night with two outs in the sixth inning, removed with two runners on and Billy Butler due up, Verlander looked like any other pitcher.
"We're fully aware that we we're 2-15 [now 3-15] against Verlander," Royals manager Ned Yost said, "so our focus today was to go out and give him a tough game, and that's exactly what we did."
And as the Tigers stared at the damage on the scoreboard, from a blown lead early to a tie game surrendered in the fifth en route to a 6-5 loss, the debate over whether Verlander was back in form was reset once again. The Royals defeated Verlander for the first time since Sept. 9, 2009.
"This game, there was a couple opportunities, a couple times where I was starting to find it," Verlander said. "And it just didn't click. It just kind of went right back to not being able to execute."
Just why that is has gone right back to the forefront of the discussion. Detroit had other reasons for its fifth loss in its last six meetings with Kansas City, from 11 runners left on base to Aaron Crow retiring Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera to strand the potential tying run on third base in the eighth. All that is secondary to getting the ace right on the mound.
"This is just me -- I don't know what Justin will say -- but it looks to me like he's pitching a little careful," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's just not being aggressive with his stuff and pitching a little bit too careful. That's just my observation."
Leyland conditioned his answer as his own opinion as much as he could, turning a simple theory into a thesis.
"I don't know if it's accurate," Leyland said. "That's just what I see. That's just kind of what I sense."
Verlander's answer consisted of one word.
"No," the right-hander said, leaving the answer hanging in the silence of the visiting clubhouse.
Asked why Leyland might think his ace is pitching carefully, Verlander said, "That's a question for him."
Asked what might lead to Verlander pitching carefully, Leyland responded, "Can't answer that. You'll have to ask him."
Asked what he thinks, catcher Alex Avila spoke carefully.
"Well, he's attacking guys," Avila said. "I think he just doesn't have his release point. At times, he knows where he wants to throw it, but it's just not going there at times. It's just a matter of finding it."
In other words, it's back to the video room, looking for telltale signs of different mechanics, and back to the bullpen sessions, where Verlander has put in plenty of work already.
One point of agreement, at least on this night, was that it wasn't just fastball command, the root problem that has been on and off for Verlander for much of the year.
"He just wasn't real sharp with anything," Leyland said.
Verlander did not throw a side session during All-Star festivities, instead resting his arm before throwing off a mound on Thursday in Detroit. Verlander felt like his body was telling him to take a break, from his arm to his sore quadriceps that bothered him on Sunday.
When Verlander took a no-hit bid into the seventh inning last Sunday against Texas, he looked like he had found a new form, combining strategic power with a savvy on how to mix his pitches as a 30-year-old. He looked rejuvenated, invigorated and more aware than ever of how hitters would approach him.
"I felt like going into the All-Star break, I had three or four [outings] that were much better," Verlander said, "and then today wasn't where I need to be, so hopefully just that time off threw me out of sync."
Verlander did have some excellent outings. He also had some terrible ones. That pretty well sums up his last six weeks.
He ended Saturday's first inning holding a 2-1 lead after a Salvador Perez sacrifice fly, but needed 21 pitches to do it. After an eight-pitch second inning and two quick outs in the third, an Eric Hosmer single, four-pitch walk to Butler and two-run double from Perez stretched his inning to 23 pitches, ending when Perez tried to stretch a triple on Hunter.
Verlander loaded the bases twice in a 32-pitch fourth inning -- the first on three consecutive line-drive singles, the second with two outs. Back-to-back walks not only loaded the bases, they brought around Mike Moustakas to score for a 5-3 lead.
Avila's two-run single seemingly gave Verlander a new game, as he did his two quick outs in the bottom half. Again, Verlander fell behind on a 2-0 count to Moustakas before leaving a fastball over the plate for a go-ahead solo homer.
With six runs, five earned, on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings, he allowed five runs for the third time in his last eight starts. In that same stretch, Verlander has three outings of seven or more scoreless innings.
"See-saw," Verlander described it. "When it hasn't been there, I haven't been able to find it. And when it has, it's been good. It's what I've talked about all year, just finding that consistency."
On this Leyland agreed.
"I would say over the course of the season up to this point, and there is a lot of season left obviously, his performances haven't been quite as consistent as in the past," Leyland said. "I think that's a fair assessment.
"That doesn't mean they haven't been OK. They haven't been quite what you expect of him, which is a little bit unfair too at times because you expect so much. It doesn't mean he's pitched bad in any way. It means he really hasn't been on that consistent roll that we know he can get on."
Dominant or not, they have to find that consistent Justin Verlander.