Game 49 Preview
Time/Place: 1:08pm EST, Comerica Park
Pirates: Francisco Liriano ( 1.00 ERA, 12.50 K/9, 3.00 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9)
Tigers: Justin Verlander ( 3.66 ERA, 10.53 K/9, 3.20 BB/9, 0.46 HR/9)
The Bucs and the Tigers kick off what basically amounts to an MLB version of an NBA "home and home" series this week with two games at Comerica Park followed by a quick trip to the Steel City for a four game, four day, two city interleague match. MLB has long decided that fans of the two clubs are now "rivals" having scheduled the Tigers/Pirates several years running. The Pirates come in red hot sporting a 16-7 record in the month of May while the Tigers enter having moved back into first place in the AL Central by 1.5 games over the Cleveland Indians.
The festivities get started by the Tiger facing a familiar foe, former Twins enigma Francisco Liriano. Liriano has had a career of ups and downs with more "downs" the last few years. He has teetered on the brink of breaking through a few times and was long a hot commodity due to his wicked slider and easy velocity. But arm troubles have always been lurking and, for the most part, the results never matched the hype.
After being dealt last season at the deadline to the White Sox by the Twins for spare parts, Liriano was cast adrift and landed in the Pittsburgh organization. Truth be told, lots of folks had probably forgotten about him this Spring as he was toiling to start the year in Advanced A before pitching for the Pirates Triple A club.
However a funny thing has happened on the way to oblivion. Liriano has found something that is, at the very least, working here in the short term. He has found his way back to the big leagues and pitching for a club riding a good wave of results. Liriano has been leaning quite heavily on his formidable slider and for 18-innings (yes...a very small sample...we know) he has been a force to add to the Bucs rotation.
Will it last? Well...I would put no money on it. Can he pitch well on Monday? Sure. He's rolling right now. Can the Tigers lay off the slider and wait him out for fastballs in hitter's counts? That seems to be the game plan that makes sense. Putting it in action is another question. Liriano features a heater averaging 93-mph and his slide piece clocks in around 86. Fangraphs has him showing a change up on occasion as well.
For the Tigers, all eyes will be on Justin Verlander. Just over a year ago he took a no-hitter into the 9th inning at Comerica Park against these Pirates. The world was his oyster. Now? He is encountering rough waters of late. Three straight starts with very rough results (to be kind) that have featured several missile launch extra-base hits plus some uncharacteristic and ill-timed walks. Verlander's fastball command seems way off and without his heater getting respect it seems to have left his off-speed offerings very vulnerable. (and yes, this being the internet, saying his fastball command seems "way off" comes from the comfy confines of a nice leather chair in Iowa and the reality that I'm neither a scout nor a pitching coach. But that's how it strikes me from watching the games.)
Is he healthy? We can only assume he is for now. His velocity in his last start seemed pretty good and he certainly has made no excuses based on aches and pains. But overall this year Fangraphs has his fastball velocity nearly 2-mph lower than last year and his walk-rate is at it's highest since 2008. (Tigers fans don't care for "2008" references all that much) If you want to speculate that there is a physical issue, I can't tell you that you're nuts for at least wondering.
If Verlander is physically fine however, how does he right the ship? Most likely with patience and a dose of better fortune. He is striking out a lot of batters, certainly enough to succeed at a high level (the high K-rate is probably Exhibit A for the defense that he's not hurt). Verlander needs to get the walk-rate down to the norms he was posting from 2009-2012 and hope that his BABIP starts to drift back towards his career mark of .286. Currently he sports an unsightly .358 BABIP. Now...a lot of that is on him. It's not all bad luck with bleeders and bloopers finding holes. Could the defense tighten up and help him a bit? Yes. But he has given up some ringing shots and that's not all on the defense. However at some point a few of those balls will start to find leather that are finding grass right now.
Justin Verlander is still the staff "Ace" for what the designation is worth. The guy who won the Cy Young is still there. Three wretched starts haven't changed that. When he starts to locate his heater once again to dictate how each at-bat plays out, we'll look back on this stretch in May and wonder how that happened to him.
The Pirates are on a roll. They are shooting for their first winning record in nearly 20 years and once again have gotten fans hopes up in Pittsburgh by putting together early success. This was also the scenario that played out in 2011 and again in 2012 however. Both times the club faded as games piled up over the long summer. Is this the year they can rise above .500? Can they also carry that through to contend as well?
Certainly it appears they have some pieces in place that they didn't in other years. The rotation looks far more presentable. AJ Burnett is their Ace and he's pitching like one with a 2.57 ERA and 85 K in 70 IP. He would fit near the top of any rotation in the game. Wandy Rodriguez is dependable and say what you want about Jeff Locke, but he's churning out solid starts this year. James McDonald fills out the end of the rotation with some potential for a good stretch and we discussed Liriano above. This isn't a bad group at all for the NL.
The Bucs also boast their bullpen nicknamed "The Shark Tank". Quite simply, it's a strikeout festival with these guys. Jason Grilli has locked down the ninth inning by continuing his, some would say, improbable resurrection. Grilli comes in having punched out 34 batters in 22.2 innings and has been good for 20 saves. Grilli was a favorite of few Tigers fans, at least at the end of his time in Detroit, but there is no denying that he persevered and is writing an entirely new script for his career.
Mark Melancon (27 K in 27 IP) has also told Boston fans to "stuff it" and shown he is an effective relief option. Justin Wilson (28 K in 29 IP) and Vin Mazzaro have also been handy guys for Clint Hurdle to summon into games so far as well.
The Pirates offense is centered around Andrew McCutchen of course. He's a bona fide star. Starling Marte‘, however, has been the story of the young season. Marte‘ is establishing himself as McCutchen's trusty wingman by posting a .301/.366/.456 slashline through Saturday's action.
Russell Martin has provided a little pop from the catcher spot and Garrett Jones is always a threat to run into a few pitches at opportune moments. As has been the case for a few years, former #1 draft pick Pedro Alvarez is frustrating the Bucs. His power bat has never found it's groove. Yeah, he has 10 homers right now but the OBP in the .260's impresses nobody.
The Tigers have their work cut out for them this week. Pittsburgh is riding high and playing a nice brand of baseball. They have some power arms in the bullpen that can shut down offenses if their starters can hand them a small lead. Will the Tigers offense be able to get the Pirates rotation early? Can the Tigers rotation out-pitch their NL counterparts? We'll watch and see.
Prediction for Monday:
Does Justin Verlander "snap out of it" in Game 1 of this series? Depends on how you define it. I think he gets a Quality Start at minimum but the potential is there for a lot more. There is plenty of "swing and miss" in the Pirates lineup which is top 5 in strikeouts in the NL. If Verlander has gotten his fastball back under control I could see him posting a 10+ strikeout/1 walk/0 run performance with little problem.
For Liriano? We've seen a lot of the "bad Liriano" up close and personal throughout the years. I'm not too impressed with 18 innings of a solid Pittsburgh debut though you certainly have to respect he has gotten himself back to the majors in short order. Tigers hitters should feel familiar with him and confident. They'll score at least a few off of Liriano.
Detroit gets the first game this week. Tigers 4 Pirates 2