Game 51 preview: Tigers at Pirates

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A renewed A.J. Burnett faces Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Pirates (32-20) at Detroit Tigers (30-20)

Time/Place: 7:05 p.m. ET, PNC Park

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, Tigers Radio Network

Opposing blog: Bucs Dugout

Pitching matchup: A.J. Burnett (3-5, 2.57 ERA) vs. Anibal Sanchez (5-4, 2.38)

Burnett, in his last five games, has pitched consistently well for the Pirates. He's gone seven innings each time, and just once allowed more than two runs. Yet he's only one win to show for it during that time, to go with three losses and a no-decision.

It's not smoke-and-mirrors either. For the season he has struck out more than 30 percent of the batters he's faced, and 56 percent of those who get wood on the bat put it on the ground. Coupled with a home-run-to-fly-ball rate a few ticks below his career norms, and you've got a pretty effective pitcher.

Beyond the Box Score wrote about Burnett earlier this month that Burnett's fastball remains at last year's levels, but what's made a difference is the pitch selection around the fastball:

(Burnett has) moved to throwing more sinkers, knuckle-curves and change-ups. The sinker comes in at the same velocity as the heater, with about a 5 MPH difference in velocity with the change-up. So batters could sit on the two faster offerings and adjust to the change, except Burnett also throws that 82 MPH knuckle-curve a third of the time, a pitch that's nearly impossible to adjust to if you're sitting fastball. That knuckle-curve has a 43% whiff/swing rate and a 30% foul/swing rate, meaning it's only being put in play on 27% of swings.

As for Sanchez, I'm not sure there's anything left for me to write new. I detailed him in a post on Saturday, in this week's column for the Detroit News, and again in a post today.

In short: Sanchez has been really good. He strikes everyone out, and he doesn't get himself in trouble. He set the franchise-mark for strikeouts in a nine inning game and only a few starts later came within two outs of throwing the second no-hitter of his career.

Outlook

Detroit's on the road for the final two games of this home-and-home series, an interleague twist this year. One thing we haven't talked about much outside the comments: this "rivalry" with Pittsburgh. It is of course manufactured, one the MLB had to create because neither team had a proper interleague rival. The Twins had their neighbors in Milwaukee. The Indians got the Reds. The White Sox played the lovable losers from Wrigley. The Royals and Cardinals meet. Yet Detroit had no one. Likewise, the Phillies and Pirates were both NL clubs, so there was no easy solution for the MLB there. So, the two misfits without a rival have found each other.

Which to me is great. The Pirates are hopefully a team moving up in the world. We can use this series to cast eyes to 1909, when the two teams went seven games in the World Series. (Wrong team won, which probably annoyed our great, great grandparents to no end!) Or maybe we can just create the Jim Leyland Trophy for the winning club -- although some folks out there would choose to hand it to the loser of the season series ... and "force" the loser to take Leyland himself for that matter.

And finally, PNC Park in Pittsburgh has to have one of the most beautiful backdrops for watching a game. And the excitement of having a baseball leave the park and land in the river can only be matched by San Francisco and the bay.

I don't know how long this rivalry will go on -- the teams have only been locked in a yearly dance since 2009 -- but I'd say the outlook for the manufactured rivalry might be pretty good if it continues into the future.

Prediction

On paper, Tuesday's game in Detroit should have been a higher-scoring affair than 1-0 in 11 innings. And on paper, Wednesday's game in Pittsburgh should be one where runs come at a premium. Yet, well, this is baseball, so just as you sit down for a pretty nice pitcher's duel, it'll be 4-3 at the end of two innings.

More Roars:

Pirates 1, Tigers 0: Porcello brilliant, but gets no support

Wednesday’s links

Who’s your non-Tiger?

Sanchez, Scherzer K-ing their way to the top

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